FCC Looks at Stations’ Use of PR Videos

Times Staff Writer

The Federal Communications Commission is investigating allegations that dozens of television stations, including three in Los Angeles, aired corporate advertisements masquerading as news stories, an official at the agency said Thursday.

Federal regulations require that broadcast stations disclose the corporate backers of “video news releases” or face a maximum fine of $32,500 for each violation and possible revocation of their license.

The FCC probe was initiated in response to a report by a nonprofit watchdog group that found that 77 stations broadcast video features about products from 49 companies, including General Motors Corp., Intel Corp. and Pfizer Inc., without disclosing that they were produced by public relations firms.


The three local stations are KCBS-TV Channel 2, KABC-TV Channel 7 and KTLA-TV Channel 5, which is owned by Los Angeles Times’ parent company, Tribune Co.

KCBS did not return a phone call, but representatives at KTLA and KABC said they had policies prohibiting the use of video news releases without properly identifying their sources.

A video news release about an allergy test called ImmunoCAP “did somehow slip through the cracks” to air on KABC in September, Cheryl Fair, the station’s vice president and news director, said in a statement.

The Center for Media and Democracy, a Madison, Wis.-based nonprofit that monitors the public relations industry, presented the results of its 10-month study in April to FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein, who had raised complaints about the practice.

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin ordered an investigation into the allegations, said a commission official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“We’re very happy to see that the FCC is taking this seriously,” said Diane Farsetta, the report’s co-author. “It’s an obvious breech of journalistic standards.”


In April 2005, the FCC sent broadcast stations a notice reminding them of the requirement to disclose the source of video news releases amid controversy over their use by the Bush administration.

Public relations firms make video news releases look like objective news reports. But they are “the dissemination of corporate propaganda” over public airwaves, said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a Portland, Ore.-based consumer group.

“Millions of people watch these things and they need to know -- and they deserve to know -- who is seeking to persuade them,” Ruskin said.

The Center for Media and Democracy found that 98 video news releases aired on news programs at stations in 30 states. Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Co. had the most stations cited in the report, with seven each. CBS and News Corp.’s Fox each had six.

“The Fox Television Stations’ policy is clear: All outside news reporting that is used by a station must be identified as to the source,” said Erica Keane, vice president of media relations for Fox’s 35 owned and operated stations. “We are taking the appropriate steps to reiterate this policy to our entire stations group.”

Representatives from the other companies did not respond to phone calls or e-mails seeking comment.


Most stations told the nonprofit that airing the releases without proper disclosure was inadvertent, coauthor Farsetta said. But she said the number of incidents made her doubt that.