In Washington: Congress quiet on issue of liquor ads

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NBC's decision to accept liquor ads appears to be slipping past a distracted Congress-a move that could open the door wider for broadcast rivals to follow its lead.

NBC benefited from savvy timing-announcing it would take liquor ads as Washington closed down for the holidays-and priorities. Congress now faces issues delayed last year by the Sept. 11 attacks and the scandal involving bankrupt Enron and its former accounting firm, Andersen.

contrast

The General Electric Co. network's decision now appears unlikely to lead to legislative or regulatory action this year from Congress or the Federal Communications Commission.

That's in stark contrast to a similar situation six years ago, when Seagram America's breaking of a spirits-industry embargo on TV advertising attracted attention from the-then FCC chairman and Capitol Hill.

"I believe that NBC's 19 guidelines regarding liquor ads represent a responsible approach and I have no plans to hold hearings on the issue," said Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., chairman of the Telecommunications, Trade and Consumer Protection panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

In the Senate, a Commerce Committee panel headed by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., had no plans for a hearing as of last week, though it could still hold hearings later this year. And FCC Chairman Michael Powell has given no indication the commission will look into the issue.

NBC doesn't plan to run liquor ads until April, which gives lawmakers plenty of time to react. NBC requires liquor advertisers to run four months of responsible-drinking ads before running a single product ad. Only one liquor company so far has signed on: Diageo's Guinness-UDV North America, which in December began running responsible-drinking ads with creative from Glover Park Group, Washington.

Viacom's CBS, Walt Disney Co.'s ABC and News Corp.'s Fox have all said they have no plans to accept liquor ads.

The reaction to NBC's decision has been vastly different than six years ago, when Seagram America broke a Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. embargo on broadcast advertising. Then-FCC Chairman Reed Hundt urged stations and networks not to take the ads, and also tried, unsuccessfully, to interest the FCC in looking at the ads. On Capitol Hill, then-Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., pushed the issue. The spirits group later dropped its embargo.

CRITICS' CHOICE

NBC isn't yet entirely free and clear, however. In both the House and Senate, several legislators have expressed concern about its move. Among them are Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who could use his seat as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee panel, which authorizes funding for the FCC, to push that agency to act. Mr. Wolf has requested hearings by several House and Senate panels. Other legislators who have spoken up include Reps. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Some suggest the quiet reflects more that Congress is out of Washington than a lack of interest. "The fact is that Congress has been out of session, and the grass-roots effort is just getting geared up," said George Hacker, director of the alcohol-policies project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

NBC could face problems outside Congress. Last week, Maine's Kennebec Journal reported that Gannett Co.-owned TV stations in Portland and Bangor, Maine, decided to black out any hard-liquor ads.

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