Clinton Signs Law Regulating Public Broadcasting Station List Practices

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President Clinton Monday signed into law the Satellite Home Viewers Improvements Act, which contains a provision to cut off federal funding to public broadcasting stations that rent or share lists with political candidates or parties. The law also mandates that public stations inform their donors "clearly and conspicuously" if their names are going to be made available for rental and give them an opportunity to opt out of having their names shared.


The legislation is similar to the guidelines established this summer by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Washington, which is responsible for distributing federal funds to Public Broadcasting System member stations.


Although the Internal Revenue Service already prohibits tax-exempt nonprofit groups from exchanging donor lists with political groups, the new law prevents public broadcasters from receiving federal funding if they do not comply with its privacy codes.


The legislation, which amends the Communications Act of 1934, states that public stations cannot rent contributor or donor names from any "Federal, state or local candidate, political party or political committee."


Tom Hurley, president of DMW Worldwide, Boston, an advertising agency that works with public broadcasters to raise money, said his company already had a policy not to exchange lists with political groups. However, because of the new CPB rules, DMW no longer rents lists from political entities when compiling mailings for public broadcasters.


Such rentals had accounted for less than 1 percent of stations' list activities anyway, he said, and most of the names that were on the political lists are available through other lists that are not political in nature.


The issue reached the level of Congressional action this summer after public TV station WGBH, Boston, was found to have exchanged donor names with a Democratic fundraising group. A subsequent investigation found that about 9 percent of the nation's public broadcasters had rented or exchanged names with political groups, although such rentals accounted for an insignificant percentage of their revenues.


Hurley said one benefit of the national attention was that it forced public stations to review their privacy policies.


"It caused all of the stations in the system to carefully look at what their list policies are, and to make sure they are written down," he said. "It caused everybody to take the policies and procedures that kind of sit in the bookcase and make sure they are really happening."


Dick McPherson, president of McPherson Associates, a Malverne, PA, ad agency that also does work for public broadcasters, agreed that the new law wouldn't have much of an impact on stations' fundraising activities.


"It's certainly no surprise, and everybody's prepared to live with it," he said.
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