Sponsored Programs Must Clearly, Transparently and Unequivocally Disclose Material Information, Says Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, March 9, 2006 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning an episode of the Health Show broadcast on CFRB (NewsTalk 1010, Toronto). The CBSC Ontario Regional Panel concluded that the station did not adequately identify the relationship between the sponsorship of the show and the guests on the program, who were employees of the commercial sponsor of the show on that day. The decision is the CBSC’s first on the issue of sponsored programming.

The subject of the challenged episode of the Health Show (an informational program that deals with health-related issues) was elder care and retirement residences. The two guests discussing the issue and answering listeners’ questions were employees of retirement residences that belonged to the chain sponsoring the episode. The Panel agreed with the complainant that the broadcaster did not adequately disclose the fact that that company had paid for its representatives to appear on the program. The Panel found the “brought to you by” statement read three times, namely, at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the program entirely insufficient.

The bottom line is that potential confusion on the part of the listener (or viewer) is the concern. Just as text-heavy, story-styled full pages in newspapers are headed “[advertisement]” when they are thought to be at risk of inducing readers into believing that they are the objective news items or features prepared by the publication’s staff, broadcast equivalents that could be potentially confusing to radio or television audiences merit their own style of confusion avoidance.

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[T]he issue is transparency and the avoidance of confusion. […] The Panel wishes to emphasize that there is nothing inherently wrong or problematic in providing expertise to audiences. Such information may indeed be extremely helpful and informative. The problem results only from the potentially incorrect audience expectation that an expert on a subject who is presented by a broadcaster has been chosen by the broadcaster on the basis of his or her expertise and not on the basis of having paid for the opportunity to access audience members listening in good faith and innocence.

[…]

[C]lear, transparent and unequivocal disclosure is the required standard […]. Indeed, the obligation may be still greater when the station broadcasting such sponsored programming is a news and talk station since that broadcast format consists primarily of spoken word. While all stations have the obligation to provide a clear, transparent and unequivocal disclaimer, listeners to a news and talk station could more easily confuse paid or sponsored content with regular news and information programming.

The Panel concluded that the broadcast of the episode “without a clear, transparent and unequivocal disclosure of the [corporate] sponsorship […] and its specific relationship to the guests constituted a breach of Clauses 6 and 14 of the CAB Code of Ethics.”

Canada’s private broadcasters have themselves created industry standards in the form of Codes on ethics, gender portrayal and television violence by which they expect the members of their profession will abide. In 1990, they also created the CBSC, which is the self-regulatory body with the responsibility of administering those professional broadcast Codes, as well as the Code dealing with journalistic practices first created by the Radio Television News Directors Association of Canada (RTNDA) in 1970. More than 590 radio and television stations and specialty services from across Canada are members of the Council.

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All CBSC decisions, Codes, links to members' and other web sites, and related information are available on the CBSC's website at www.cbsc.ca. For more information, please contact the CBSC National Chair, Mme Andrée Noël CBSC Executive Director, John MacNab