TV ads distort issue

Reno television stations are running ads that oversimplify a radio broadcasting issue before Congress.

“The station you listen to could go out of business” is the arresting message of one of the ads, which described a performance “tax” that stations would have to pay under legislation before Congress. “Big record companies want a new tax on music played on local radio,” the spots say, also warning that the “tax” would mean “no new music on the radio.” It’s not clear how a radio station that went out of business would play new or old music.

What’s actually at issue is a fee that the record industry wants to assess local radio stations for their use of performers’ work. The public would not be taxed. By some estimates the fee would produce $2 to $7 billion per year for the companies, which consider the fee similar to royalties paid by music services, such as Muzak, to use recordings. The National Association of Broadcasters, one of the nation’s most powerful lobby groups, opposes the fee.

This is one of those rare congressional issues—a bipartisan measure. Of Sen. Patrick Leahy’s six cosponsors of S. 379, three are Republicans.

Nate Anderson of the online media magazine Ars Technica wrote, “When it comes to music, U.S. ‘performance rights’ law looks like a floodlit monument to inconsistency. Radio stations pay only songwriters for the music they play; recording artists get nothing (except publicity). When music is delivered through webcasting, cable networks, and satellite radio, however, station owners need to pay both songwriters and recording artists.”

The American Association of Independent Music notes in a statement that, as is the case in so many fields, the United States is in interesting company: “This legislation seeks to rectify a uniquely American problem. Of world powers, only countries like China, Iran, and North Korea join the U.S. in failing to compensate creators of music when their songs are played on the radio.”

While there is debate over how much of the fee will make its way to performers, that is something that could be addressed in the legislation. But at all events, the issue is very different from the description given in the deceptive television ads.

This ad campaign is similar to one run by local television stations around the nation in the mid-1990s, when NAB ads told viewers that “we may be watching some of our favorite shows disappear. Some people in Washington want to tax local TV broadcasters billions of dollars in order to balance the budget.” In that case, what was actually at issue was whether broadcasters would have to pay at auction for additional channels, and the ads were so successful that broadcasters got the channels for free and the taxpayers lost an estimated $70 billion. Local stations failed to provide news coverage of the issues at stake, leaving viewers at the mercy of the ads.

Television journalists may not be that indifferent this time. At least one Reno news director, Jason Pasco of KTVN, said his staff is discussing news coverage of the ads.