Don't ask questions, give them answers.

This article will take approx 5 minutes to read.

I like the group at Ars Technica. They do some pretty unique things and have a great mix of content on their site. But when it comes to policy coverage, the blog-like style they use sometimes encourages shortcuts or causes a story to miss big details.

For instance, Sunday night, Matthew Lasar wrote a post about the FCC’s consideration of rules governing “embedded ads” (product placement). While he touched on some good points, he missed a few things that you’ve just gotta have if you’re gonna write about telecom policy.

First off, he immediately divides the debate into two sides, a “good versus evil” mentality:

As the filings stream in during the Federal Communications Commission’s proceeding on what to do about embedded advertising, one thing is clear: you are either for a crackdown on the practice or against one. If you are a public health or consumer advocacy group, you belong to the first category. If you speak for the media companies and broadcasters, you are firmly ensconced in the second.

One side sees embedded ads as an intrusive, dishonest, and unhealthy innovation. The other sees product placement as the new foundation of the media’s economic well being. It is really that simple.

I’ve read Mr. Lasar for a long time, but having covered this issue myself, and actually spoken to some of the policymakers and advocates on both sides, I felt his subsequent quotations of written comments without a deeper discussion of the difference between commission authority over broadcasters versus cable content, FCC initiatives to deal with cable pricing and content (so-called a la carte pricing), and the known views of the commissioners themselves left much to be desire, especially when he closed the post like so:

All these commentaries grapple with the complex questions swirling around the product placement regulation issue. Does the FCC have statutory authority to make new rules? Does the First Amendment restrain the agency’s hand? Does the Children’s Television Act already guard children’s TV shows against embedded advertising?

But beyond these concerns, a prominent divide on the issue stands out. Consumer advocates see product placement as a clear and present harm to civil society. Big media sees it as the future.

For one, I believe the job of a reporter or blogger is to attempt to answer the questions. Dig deeper. Find out the why behind the what instead of assuming motives. Most importantly, talk to someone. Both as a solo blogger and during my time at Communications Daily, I always made it a point to talk to sources and experts, not just regurgitate written statements. Granted, I’m in D.C and have been around the industry for a while, but it doesn’t take much effort to get a hold of someone in this town, especially if you’ve been bought by Conde Nast, and your publication has hired a damn fine journalist to run the Ars D.C. operation.

I know FCC issues can be complex, and for an “outsider” they can easily be reduced to black and white. But there is a serious lack of in-depth technology policy coverage on the web, good coverage that exposes the many shades of gray and layers in these issues. There is a real need for it, so If you’re going to do it, do it right. That means more than quoting comments, adding some editorializing and posting it. The job of a good reporter or blogger isn’t just to ask tell your readers what the questions are, it is also to FIND THE ANSWERS, or at least to try, in order to get the truth to those readers. The record in this case is sufficient not only to require background and context, but the issue is important enough that reporting on it should get more than a few cut-and-pastes. Get on the phone and talk to someone who knows more than you do. That’s what I always did, and whenever possible, I still do.

The following is a comment I posted on Ars forums in response to the article. It’s not an attack on anyone, or anyone’s work. What it is (I hope,) is an attempt to fill in the blanks and provide some background as to the questions raised in the article and how some of the issues it raised came to be.

While I appreciate the effort to cover this issue, you’ve missed several important distinctions that significantly impact the debate and readers should consider.

First of all, no one disputes the Commission’s authority over broadcast television, and no one disputes the fact that “embedded advertising” (which is really a fancy word for product placement) must be disclosed. As you already reported, you’ll see the disclosures fly by in ending credits. This is not controversial at all. Rules governing advertising on broadcast television fall under the “public interest” test the FCC must apply to its decision-making process. Product placement has been around for years, but its increasing frequency and the changing advertising market that NAB admits to both demand that the commission re-examine current rules to make sure that broadcasters are satisfying the “public interest” obligation they must meet in order to keep their licenses.

Second, the NPRM would not be making any new rules with respect to children’s programming. What the Commission wants to do is clarify the existing rules to make it clear that embedded advertising is prohibited under the existing ban on advertising inside children’s programming. The requirements of the Children’s Television Act are not in dispute here. The FCC is obligated to make sure their rules carry out the intent of statute, and this means making sure that the rules do not fall out of date with respect to changing technologies.

Whether or not the ban applies to cable programming in addition to broadcast television is part of the larger issue of how far the commission’s authority extends over cable programming. The extent that a channel is a subscription service is an important factor in making this determination (for the same reason that HBO can be racier than TNT). The cable industry could remove any doubt by offering channels a la carte, something NCTA has consistently and strongly opposed, much to the ire of Chairman Martin.

While the FCC has not chosen to heavily regulate cable programming out of (legitimate) First Amendment concerns, a move to further regulate product placement in broadcast television, would surely “trickle down” to the basic cable channels that carry vast amounts of second-run and syndicated broadcast content in addition to original programming.

Where the cable industry in particular has a vested interest in keeping product placement rules the same is they are now in the process of rolling out their new Tru2Way interactive content platform as well as moving to all digital networks. Digital technology will eventually allow much more addressable advertising based on programming choices and other viewing habits in addition to location and time slot. If ordinary product placement must be disclosed more clearly, the industry’s ability to sell ads in interactive programming and games (which could be targeted to children) could be in jeopardy.

The commission has already reached a “broad consensus” on clarifying the existing ban on advertising to children, according to Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein (D). But Chairman Martin has not called for a vote on the issue. Nor has he called for any vote on re-examining rules governing product placement and disclosure.

With respect to the children’s programming ad ban, Commissioner Deborah Tate (R) has been a strong advocate for child safety and protection, but has declined to say publicly whether she supports clarifying the ban on ads in children’s programming. When the House adjourns, her term will expire, leaving an open seat and increasing the likelihood of 2-2 party line votes that would prevent rules from being adopted in absence of a majority.

Framing this debate as “big media versus consumers” oversimplifies what is a combination of far more complex issues that have been out there for years and are an inevitable consequence of the FCC’s legal obligations as well as the constitutional constraints it operates under. And while you’ve based much of the article on the public comments, you don’t include much information on where the Commissioners themselves might stand. Nor do you attempt to provide any background on the subject of FCC’s lack of explicit statutory authority over cable television content (and the a la carte pricing debate that springs from it) or any analysis from industry experts that would allow you to give readers a better view of the issue than just “consumers versus media.”

Comments

  1. says

    Do you realize there are advertisements going through the middle of your article making it impossible for me to read it? Is this just happening on my computer or is there a secret to getting those darn things to go away? Your 'Recent Posts' (site admin I guess you would call it) is in the middle of the article too. I hope you get if straightened out soon so I can read this or is it a problem with me??? Wouldn't be the first time. KeeKee

  2. Matthew Lasar says

    I appreciate Andrew Feinberg's response to my article, which appears to focus primarily on this paragraph:”All these commentaries grapple with the complex questions swirling around the product placement regulation issue. Does the FCC have statutory authority to make new rules? Does the First Amendment restrain the agency's hand? Does the Children's Television Act already guard children's TV shows against embedded advertising?”These questions are legitimate or illegitimate depending on your perspective. If you are media industry, they are indeed “new” rules in that immediate disclosure could significantly curtail the amount of embedded advertising that appears on television programs. And while consumer groups argue that the First Amendment does not come into play here because, in the case of broadcast TV, the advertising has a deceptive quality to it (it pretends not to be advertising), industry spokespersons and their allies argue otherwise. And reform groups are saying that the CTA already offers a strong precedent for further action, especially in regard to televised movies, so that is a question. These are some of the issues that are in play, and I generalized them as such. As for the criticism that I have oversimplified the matter as “consumers versus media.” Well, frankly, it sure looks that way, judging from the filings. As the opening paragraph of the story suggests, this article was about the filings that have come in so far on the product placement question, not what the Commissioners think. The consumer groups all want more restraints on product placement, the media groups don't, because they contend that the 30 second ad has been significantly weakened by TIVo technology. I think that the most significant contribution that the story makes is that it indicates the extent to which the media industry sees product placement as central to the future of broadcasting. Sometimes debates actually are quite simple. I stand by that perception of the moment.Feinberg urges me to speak to people, rather than just summarize filings. Anyone who reads my articles on Ars on a regular basis knows that I often speak to people: industry executives and spokespersons, aides to Congressional reps, public safety providers, FCC spokespersons, and even the Commissioners when I can. But sometimes there's a real virtue to focusing on the statements that various entities send to the government. They often make plain desires, intentions, and perspectives that both industry and reform group spokespersons tend to play down in interviews and public statements. I think that that is very evident in this case.Matthew Lasar