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FCC Asks for Help on Stealth TV Ads

June 15, 2005|Jube Shiver Jr. | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission wants people to help it spot potential broadcast payola as the agency comes under growing pressure to investigate stealth product promotions on television and radio shows.

Agency officials have created a Web page noting that stations must be upfront when they are paid to air program materials, and that employees need to notify stations when they accept payment to air material. TV viewers and radio listeners are urged to file complaints if broadcasters fail to adequately disclose paid promotions.

The move comes after a call last month by FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein for a sweeping crackdown on broadcasters who are increasingly slipping "covert commercial pitches" into TV entertainment and news shows.

Adelstein contends that the FCC has been lax in enforcing anti-payola rules by allowing stations to inadequately disclose product placements as well as instances when on-air personalities are paid to endorse products.

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, who declined to comment, has said the commission can't investigate potential violations absent complaints. Hoping to jump-start a probe, FreePress, a Northampton, Mass.-based media watchdog group, is expected to file some today.

In a draft document, FreePress said broadcasting "is chock-full of pay-for-play endorsements of commercial products and federal policy."

Under FCC rules, "sponsored material must be explicitly identified at the time of broadcast as paid for and by whom," the group said.

The last FCC enforcement against a station for a payola violation dates back five years, when the agency fined a Texas station $4,000 for not disclosing payments it received from A&M Records for playing recordings by singer Bryan Adams.

However, the agency in January launched an inquiry into conservative commentator Armstrong Williams' admission that he was paid $240,000 by the Education Department to tout the Bush administration's education policies on his television show.

Other allegations of pay-for-plugs have been in the news this year. The Wall Street Journal reported that Hewlett-Packard Co. and Eastman Kodak Co. paid product reviewers on NBC's "Today Show" to praise their products without disclosing that the reviewers were being paid.

With digital video recorders allowing viewers to skip commercials, TV advertisers have increasingly turned to product placements in dramas and situation comedies as a more effective way to reach viewers.

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