PubTV multicaster V-me faulted for airing ‘ordinary commercials’

By Dru Sefton

V-me, the Spanish-language multicast channel carried by 42 public TV stations, pulled underwriting spots from its schedule last month amid complaints about potential violations of FCC standards for noncommercial sponsorship.

V-me Media, a for-profit venture in which New York’s WNET has a minority ownership stake, is in the process of reviewing all sponsorship spots under tightened underwriting guidelines.

RoseLynn Marra, director of station relations for V-me Media in New York, told Current that V-me has heard from “three to five” stations about its underwriting credits since January, and is working to address their concerns. She declined to identify the stations or the specific problems they raised.

But V-me’s leadership moved abruptly last month to ensure the channel was in compliance with FCC underwriting rules. V-me pulled all sponsorship credits and undertook a “complete review of our current inventory with the assistance of our FCC counsel,” wrote Alvaro Garnica, general manager, in a March 15 email to station managers.

Programmers temporarily replaced the credits with promotional materials. Spots approved under the new, stricter guidelines are gradually returning to air.

A complaint about the spots came in from at least one viewer too, but didn’t go to V-me headquarters. CPB Ombudsman Joel Kaplan heard from a viewer in Sacramento, Calif., who asked why he saw “ordinary commercials” on KVIE’s multicast channel. The spots on V-me promoted L’Oréal cosmetics, Oreo cookies, Kool-Aid and State Farm Insurance, according to Kaplan’s April 17 column, which brought the flap to public attention.

“Changes were implemented before the ombudsman report was published,” Marra told Current.

V-me has hired additional attorneys to assist with reviewing current and future sponsorship messages, Garnica said in a March 29 email to station managers. It also adopted WNET’s underwriting guidelines and is providing training to V-me staffers. “We understand that the implementation of underwriting guidelines may have a subjective element,” he said in the email, “and even seasoned underwriting departments may not always agree on the interpretation of a given spot.”

V-me’s corporate sales team encountered a problem that’s familiar to those who sell spots for traditional pubTV stations, but exacerbated by different advertising standards among Spanish-language broadcasters. V-me is the only outlet working on a regular basis with Hispanic advertising agencies to sell spots for public television, Marra said. Those agencies “do not routinely create underwriting announcements. And as the U.S. Spanish market advertising is typically more aggressive, we have had discussions with the agencies and the stations to address any concerns.”

The FCC bans noncommercial stations from running credits that use comparative or qualitative language; offer price, discount or financing information; or use calls to action, such as inducements to buy or endorsements of products. Visuals that demonstrate product uses and qualities also are prohibited.

V-me is a free program service offered to public TV stations. It’s structured as a public-private partnership among Grupo PRISA, a Spanish media firm; venture capitalist Syncom Venture Partners; Baeza Group, an investment company; Germaco, a small investment corporation; and New York’s WNET. A WNET spokesperson said the station’s interest is about 6 percent.

KVIE President David Lowe told Current that he’s “very disappointed” by the laxity of V-me’s approval process for underwriting.

“It’s a case where one decision impacts every licensee airing V-me, and more attention should have been focused on the spots,” Lowe said. “New guidelines shouldn’t have been needed, as they’re the same as guidelines that all stations follow locally. And we certainly expect our national providers of content to follow the same guidelines.”

Lowe noted that local insertions on V-me from KVIE were in full FCC compliance.

Comments, questions, tips? sefton@current.org

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