Despite FCC Chairman Reed Hundt's eagerness to plunge ahead, whistling in the FCC will neither frighten off liquor advertisers or keep them from gaining access to TV in at least some markets. The more productive route is to help the TV industry write sensible rules for how this will be controlled.
The FCC can claim no special knowledge about advertising and its impact on consumers. Nor can it cite any particular responsibility for public health, as the Food & Drug Administration has done to justify its attempt, under fire in the courts, to control tobacco marketing.
Advertisers will fight an FCC whose members start deciding which legal products are unfit to advertise on TV stations. So, too, will TV stations if their "public interest" obligation is construed to include a duty to turn away truthful ads the FCC does not like. And, finally, any FCC action that singles out TV ads for liquor while ignoring ads for beer and wine faces a tough time in the courts.
Whether or not liquor will be advertised on TV is not something the government can quickly or easily address. On the other hand, TV executives can and should set rules about if, when and how liquor will be advertised on their stations. By acting with liquor marketers to self-regulate, they can help protect themselves from charges they are profiteering at the expense of the public.
For much of TV's history, all but a few stations set such rules and standards collectively through the National Association of Broadcasters TV Code Authority. It was a system not universally liked by advertisers, who often chafed at its strictures, and it collapsed in the early 1980s after the U.S. Justice department complained Code limits on commercial minutes per hour were an anticompetitive restraint on the supply of TV ad time. But the Code did set standards that tried to reflect public concerns about the ads TV brought into viewers' homes.
Rep. Billy Tauzin (R., La.), a key House member on TV matters, has recently suggested he might propose a limited antitrust exemption to let the TV business address the liquor ad issue in this collective way. Those in TV and advertising should give that serious thought.
That there will be advertiser fallout from the emergence of the first openly gay lead character in a TV series comes as no surprise. Advertisers have the right to decide how and where to spend their sponsorship dollars, and many U.S. marketers are known for their conservative media buys. (You could count on one hand the number of ad schedules Playboy has sold to domestic car companies in the past decade.)
Unfortunately, though, some marketers seem to be shying away from the "coming out" episode of ABC's "Ellen" not because of concern over the subject matter, but simply because they want to avoid the media glare certain to surround that particular show and its sponsors.
If true, that seems a short-sighted-even hypocritical-solution. Marketers pulling out of the show because of the lead character's sexual nature should just say so and deal with whatever consequences result from that stance. Those simply trying to dodge pressure from conservative groups, or to avoid being named in press coverage, should rethink their decisions and consider taking a