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Commercials unlimited

If ever the broadcasting community had an obligation to the American public to exercise restraint involving both the number and content of commercials, it will be be in the months ahead - as it finds itself less subject to industry or government regulation.

Because of the settlement of a suit with the US Justice Department last November, broadcast industry rules limiting the number and frequency of commercials that could be aired by stations were ended. And in a new development , the executive committee of the National Asssociation of Broadcasters (NAB) last week recommended that the bureau overseeing voluntary codes pertaining to the content of commercials be scrapped. The Federal Communications Commission, meanwhile, has increasingly taken a hands-off stance regarding licensing review, with FCC Chairman Mark Fowler arguing that TV stations should be regulated no differently than newspapers. The print media rely essentially on voluntary standards when it comes to accepting or rejecting advertising.

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Of concern in all this is that a reliance solely on voluntary standards could lead to the types of situations recently when some radio stations in the Midwest and New England accepted or seriously contemplated accepting liquor advertising. Only quick public outrage caused the broadcasters to reject such ads.

What needs to be remembered is that, as a recent study by the FCC shows, the television industry has passed the 90 percent mark in using available channels in the largest urban areas in the US. That means that the competition for advertising space on existing stations will be greater than ever - with a strong likelihood that air time will flow to those sponsors willing to pay the highest premiums.

Current broadcast guidelines on the content of ads involves more than just good taste. They are a recognition that television is different from, say, newspapers because the numbers of channels are limited by law and technology; and because they are awarded by a federal commission after a review process that has traditionally involved considerations of public interest and fitness.

Broadcasting representatives point out that most stations continue to adhere to the voluntary codes, despite the fact that the NAB's enforcement bureau has been almost disbanded. That is all to the good. At the same time, the industry needs to ensure that some formalized method of self-policing is adopted to replace the current enforcement bureau when and if it is disbanded. A recommendation that the industry study such an approach will be voted upon by the full board of the NAB later this month.

Given the fact that television comes right into the home - and has a powerful impact on young people in particular - the industry should insist on the highest standards pertaining to the content of advertising. For the same reasons, the FCC has an obligation to insist on the strictest possible industry licensing standards - and not abdicate its supervisory role, as increasingly seems to be the case.

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