FTC Petition: the FTC's 7/18/01 Letter 



FTC Letter in Response to Rocky Mountain Media Watch Petition Regarding Advertising Practices of Television News Broadcasts

Press Release, 8/14/01

RMMW's Response to the FTC's 7/18/01 Letter

Petition to FTC 5/8/01

Press Release 5/8/01
United States of America
Washington, DC

Division of Advertising Practices
C. Lee Peeler
Associate Director

Direct Dial
(202) 326-3090

July 18, 2001

Ms. Shannon Service, Executive Director
Mr. Jason Salzman, Board Chair
Rocky Mountain Media Watch
1836 Blake Street, #100A
Denver, CO 80202

Re: Rocky Mountain Media Watch Petition

Dear Ms. Service and Mr. Salzman:

This responds to Rocky Mountain Media Watch’s ("RMMW") May 8, 2001 petition regarding the advertising practices of television news broadcasts. In your petition you request that the Federal Trade Commission bring an action to challenge certain Denver television stations’ advertising for their news broadcasts as deceptive and unfair, on the basis that the "news" content of the broadcasts is insignificant relative to other content.

As you not in the petition, the Commission has been directed by Congress to act in the interest of all consumers to prevent deceptive or unfair acts or practices, pursuant to the Federal Trade Commission Act, 15 U.S.C. 41-58. Under Section 5 of that statute, 15 U.S.C. 45, a representation, omission, or practice is deceptive if (1) it is likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances’ and (2) it is material; that is, likely to affect consumers’ conduct or decisions with respect to the product at issue. Section 5 of the FTC Act also provides that an act or practice is unfair if the injury to consumers it causes or is likely to cause 1) is substantial; (2) is not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition; and (3) is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves. In determining whether to take enforcement or other action in any particular situation, the Commission may consider a number of factors, including the type of violation alleged; the nature and amount of consumer injury at issue and the number of consumers affected; and the likelihood of preventing future unlawful conduct and securing redress or other relief.

RMMW’s petition appears to be based on the assumption that the term "news" is synonymous with what some call "hard news" or issue-oriented news, and that a broader usage of the term—to encompass information about other events such as sports, crime reports, or other disasters—is deceptive or unfair. A key question is whether reasonable consumers share that understanding, such that they are misled by a description of the broadcasts as "news." Your petition does not provide any evidence of consumer expectations on this point, but rather notes (at pp. 9 and 11) that local broadcast news programs across the country follow a "typical" format that includes substantial coverage of sports, weather, entertainment news, and crimes and disasters. This suggests that reasonable consumers likely understand that typical local news broadcast, like a typical newspaper, will include those types of features as well as hard "hard" news.

Even if consumers did understand the term "news" to apply exclusively to "hard" news, the facts you describe do not suggest significant consumer injury. That is, consumers watching a local news program would soon discover that the broadcast was not limited to "hard" news. Given that there are numerous channels for dissemination of information ranging from newspapers to radio to cable television to the Internet, consumers who are disappointed with local stations’ news coverage can quickly turn to other sources that meet their needs for more in-depth information.

Thus, it does not appear that advertising local news broadcasts as "news" is likely deceptive or unfair under the FTC Act. For this and other reasons, while we understand your concern that citizens be well-informed on issues of civic importance such as science, education, and government, the remedy you suggest, FTC guidelines regarding what news content may be characterized as "news," is not appropriate.

Accordingly, after considering the issues raised in the petition, we decline to act on the petition. Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention.

Very truly yours,

C. Lee Peeler
Associate Director