Liquor ads stir anger

Dec 31, 2001  •  Post A Comment

NBC is facing mounting opposition in Washington over its maverick decision to air hard-liquor ads, setting the stage for a pitched battle with lawmakers that will carry into next year.
When Congress reconvenes in late January, the network will face legislation, extensive hearings and more criticism if it doesn’t rescind its decision, some lawmakers said earlier this month.
However, because of extensive lobbying previously done on NBC’s behalf about its decision to carry hard-liquor ads, it is questionable how many lawmakers will be on board to oppose the decision. But if there is a public outcry, even cautious NBC supporters, such as Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, are ready to move against the network.
“It is a sad commentary that today NBC’s bottom line-bottom line-seems to be more important to the company than the lives of young people tempted to drink or recovering alcoholics trying to beat their disease,” said Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., one of the Peacock Network’s harshest critics.
And in a development that could create major headaches for NBC, Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., is concerned and will examine the issue, spokesman Andy Davis said.
That’s significant because Sen. Hollings heads the powerful Senate Commerce Committee and has the authority to hold hearings on the matter.
In a Dec. 20 letter to top NBC executives Bob Wright, Andy Lack and Randy Falco, Rep. Wolf and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., wrote, “We must be candid and let you know that we are prepared to hold extensive hearings on alcohol advertising on television and to introduce legislation to replace the system of self-regulation of hard-liquor advertising with mandatory federal regulation.”
Rep. Wolf, who heads a House panel that funds the Federal Communications Commission, also asked the agency and the Bush administration on Dec. 20 to oppose NBC’s move.
FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, said NBC’s decision amounts to “a race to the bottom.” But most FCC regulators were silent about the decision, and it’s doubtful the agency will act, because lawmakers have made clear that ad regulation is not under FCC jurisdiction.
At a press briefing on Dec. 20, Reps. Wolf and Roybal-Allard, joined by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and various executives from watchdog organizations, railed against the network, calling its decision “shameful” and insisting the ads will lead to more alcoholism, particularly among youth.
“It is unconscionable that NBC has decided to violate its agreement for its own financial gain,” Rep. Roybal-Allard said of a longtime voluntary ban on spirits ads by the broadcast networks.
Rep. Markey said NBC would violate its public-interest obligations by airing the spots during programs that reach millions of kids, including the Olympics, which the network will carry in February. He worries that other broadcast networks will follow NBC’s lead.
NBC said it is being responsible by limiting the ads to shows with mostly adult audiences, restricting when the spots air, requiring public-service messages and barring pitches that glamorize drinking.
The lawmakers’ concerns “are precisely why we have been so vigilant in setting high standards,” NBC spokesman Cory Shields said.
Meanwhile, some critics are trying to stir a backlash against NBC by recommending that its guidelines be imposed on beer and wine ads too, a move opposed by broadcasters and makers of those alcoholic beverages.