Kevin Foley
Kevin Foley

Watching Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg getting grilled by congressional committee members the other day over the company’s practices, including its sheer size, privacy and its grip on social media, brought to mind a situation those of us in the broadcast communications industry faced about 12 years ago, albeit a lot less noteworthy.

Companies like mine produce video news releases. As the name implies, VNRs are video and audio versions of print press releases. Before social media blew up, television was the predominant medium and VNRs were widely accepted as a legitimate communications tactic by public relations professionals and many television newscasters.

VNRs are offered to TV news producers at networks and local market stations who, like their print counterparts, might choose to use them or not. There is no obligation. The news value of what we offer is at the sole discretion of the newscaster.

Back then, VNRs often aired when news was slow. Sometimes, if the VNR were timely and newsworthy enough, it would air immediately and extensively. Then, in 2005, President George W. Bush’s administration distributed a fully produced and narrated VNR touting the benefits of the president’s proposed Medicare benefits, which clearly violated FCC rules. Its goal was to positively influence viewers on a public policy issue. A media watchdog group saw it and decided to embark on a “study” of VNRs.

In 2006, the watchdog’s “report” was made public and attracted the attention of two commissioners on the FCC, who accepted the group’s findings at face value. The commissioners immediately and baselessly declared VNRs violated the agency’s rules and even threatened to fine stations for airing them. This sent a predictable chill throughout the TV news industry even though there was no due process or even any discussions with the FCC about what VNRs actually were or how they might or might not be used by newscasts.

A number of those owning companies like mine formed an industry organization to push back. We hired a distinguished former FCC attorney in Washington who reviewed the watchdog’s report and pronounced it deeply flawed in light of what the FCC’s own rules actually mandated.

The attorney wrote a scathing letter to the commission detailing the many errors and distortions in the report while reminding the FCC about First Amendment rights of free speech and a free press. I and some others subsequently met with FCC staff members to explain what VNRs were and how we presented them to news producers who, again like their print counterparts, served as the editorial filter.

Our arguments fell on deaf ears because the two commissioners had already staked out their positions, however premature and unfair. As the old saying goes, you can’t fight city hall.

For a while, many television newscasts avoided VNRs, but then as often happens; station management came to realize the FCC threats were hollow and, indeed, unenforceable after they were challenged in court. Slowly but surely, we began seeing VNRs air. Then as the great recession hit and broadcasters started cutting newsroom staffs, VNRs helped fill the void. Almost simultaneously, social media took off and a lot of PR video content also gravitated there.

Today, we distribute VNRs that we now call B-roll on behalf of PR clients, which stations air at their discretion. Out of an abundance of caution, newscasters generally identify the source of the content.

Zuckerberg’s problems, meanwhile, are far deeper and potentially more devasting to his business model. Good luck in Washington, Mark.

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Kevin Foley owns KEF Media Associates, Inc., an Atlanta-based producer and distributor of electronic publicity. He can be reached at kfoley@kefmedia.com.