D.C. sets liquor ad hearing

Mar 18, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee is quietly planning a hearing later this year on NBC’s maverick decision to air hard-liquor ads. The panel’s move could strike a blow to the network as it faces mounting criticism from watchdog and health groups.
Meanwhile, a small number of NBC affiliates, some in major markets, are breaking ranks with the network and opting not to run the ads, which have been running as public service messages since December but begin in earnest in April.
“We’ve always understood and recognized our affiliates’ rights to accept or reject advertisements based on content,” said NBC spokeswoman Kassie Canter.
NBC had tried to dampen congressional fallout by conducting a slick lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill prior to announcing its new policy, sharing ad storyboards and guidelines with key staffers.
But Electronic Media has learned that Commerce Chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., has promised Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., the most outspoken Washington critic of NBC’s liquor-ad decision, that his panel will review the network’s policy.
“He has told Mr. Wolf that he will have a hearing later this year, but no date has been set yet,” said Ken Johnson, Rep. Tauzin’s spokesman. Rep. Wolf’s office did not return EM’s phone calls.
The Cajun congressman tentatively backs NBC, but has vowed to clamp down on the network if there’s a public outcry. NBC’s decision ended its participation in a voluntary ban on the spots that’s still being honored by the other major broadcast networks.
It also caught some affiliates off-guard.
“The problem is they really didn’t consult with the stations before they did what they did,” said Bruce Baker, executive VP at Cox Television. His company, which owns three NBC affiliates, has a long-standing policy of banning such ads.
As a result, its NBC affiliates in Pittsburgh (WPXI-TV); Steubenville, Ohio (WTOV-TV); and Johnstown-Altoona, Pa., (WJAC-TV) will not carry the network spots.
Belo Corp.,which owns five NBC affiliates, knew about the announcement 48 hours before it was made and has asked its stations not to accept hard-liquor ads at the local level, said Dennis Williamson, Belo senior vice president.
But general managers at its NBC affiliates in Portland, Ore. (KGW-TV); Charlotte, N.C. (WCNC-TV); Seattle (KING-TV); Twin Falls (KTFT-TV) and Boise (KTVB-TV), Idaho, can carry the network-level advertisments if they choose. They’re making those decisions on a case-by-case basis.
“We notified the affiliate board prior to announcing the policy change,” Ms. Canter said.
Gannett Broadcasting, which owns 13 NBC affiliates, left it to the local stations to decide whether to run the ads and nearly half-six in all-chose not to. They are KARE-TV, Minneapolis; WKYC-TV, Cleveland; WGRZ-TV, Buffalo, N.Y.; WBIR-TV, Knoxville, Tenn.; WCSH-TV, Portland, Maine; and WLBZ-TV, Bangor, Maine.
“This has been a long-standing policy at both our stations in Maine,” WCSH-TV President and General Manager Steve Thaxton said, noting that the Maine affiliates support efforts to discourage teen-agers from smoking, drinking and engaging in premarital sex.
Affiliates opting to go alcohol-ad-free will instead run promotions and public service messages during the ad time. “It’s revenue-neutral,” Mr. Thaxton said.
Pressure’s on
Not surprisingly, another NBC station that won’t carry the spots is KSL-TV in Salt Lake City, the heart of Mormon country, where drinking alcohol is frowned upon. Bonneville International Corp. owns the station.
Some stations are also feeling pressure from their local communities to not run the ads. The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors last week voted unanimously to send a letter to the San Luis Obispo, Calif., NBC affiliate, KSBY-TV, asking the station to not run hard-liquor ads, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In all, NBC has about 215 affiliates.
In ongoing meetings between NBC officials and public-interest and health advocates concerned about the ads, the network has indicated it will proceed with the spots, but appears to have left the door open to possibly tweaking its guidelines.
But even that would not be enough for some critics.
“I’m building a national coalition around stopping NBC from airing the ads at all,” said Rev. Jesse Brown, executive director of the National Association of African Americans for Positive Imagery, a Philadelphia-based group.
“I don’t believe that they think there is much community disapproval, but we’ll change their minds on that,” said the reverend, who participated in a meeting with NBC officials two weeks ago.
His group, which has allied with the American Medical Association, the watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest and church congregations across America to battle NBC, previously helped fend off an effort by tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds to market a cigarette targeted at inner-city residents.
“Post-Newsweek Stations is not currently taking any liquor advertising,” said company President Alan Frank in a statement, but he added that the station group has not taken a position “on NBC’s willingness to accept liquor advertising.”