Underwriting Guidelines

Underwriting FAQs by FCC Staff Attorney

The following is based on nearly ten years professional experience as Underwriting Manager for WATC-DT Atlanta, a private Non-Commercial Educational (NCE) station not affiliated with PBS or NPR.

N.C.E. radio and TV stations are forbidden by the F.C.C. from airing commercial "spot announcements," paid programming from businesses / individuals, or raising money for any purpose except the station's own expenses. WATC and hundreds of other educational radio/TV are permitted to:

1. Air "enhanced underwriting announcements" acknowledging financial support from businesses and "for-profit" organizations.

2. Accept financial underwriting to air programming provided by non-profit organizations such as churches, ministries, and civic clubs and associations. These programs must be aired "in the public interest" and not "because of financial considerations."

3. Solicit donations from individuals and families. These are tax deductible; as required by the IRS, receipts must mailed to all donors.

Underwriting from businesses and other "for profit" organizations

Donations may be acknowledged by a brief announcement, generally 30 seconds or less in length.

A. Name of donor
B. Slogan or logo identifying the donor (audio or visual)
C. Address, telephone number, and web site
D. Brand name may be included
E. A value neutral description of products, goods, and services

A. Comparative or qualitative statements
B. Price information
C. "Calls to action" or statements encouraging listeners to contact or patronize the donor
D. Repetitive statements (giving name / address several times in one announcement).

Underwriting from churches, ministries, and other non- profit organizations

Stations may programs and announcements from bona fide non-profit entities if the material aired is deemed as advancing the public interest, rather than in return for consideration.

Permitted: - Everything a for-profit entity is allowed plus:
A. Comparative or qualitative statements
B. "Calls to action"
C. Price information ("suggested donation")
D. Printed materials and audio / video tapes may be offered and brief requests for donations

A. Announcements totaling more than three minutes out of a thirty-minute program encouraging the listener / viewer to "send a donation"
B. An NCE is forbidden to "interrupt regular programming" to raise money for any purpose except its own operating expenses. Specifically, money can NOT be raised to help victims of disasters or groups like the Red Cross or Salvation Army, unless done as occasional brief Public Service Announcements.

Gray Areas in the Regulations

NCE stations and business underwriter who wish to "stretch the envelope" find conflicting interpretations by underwriting professionals, FCC attorneys, and the FCC itself. Here are some "gray areas":

It is OK to identify an accounting professional as a "CPA" and health professional as a "MD" but the FCC criticized (but did not fine) a station for saying that a photographer was a member of "Professional Photographers of America." We assume that it OK to say that someone is a REALTOR but not that they are members of a "Million Dollar Roundtable." 

It would probably be OK to have a sixty-second announcement for a "nuclear reactor manufacturer" but any announcement for Burger King should probably be limited to 30 second of less.

It is OK to say that a retailer has "ten area locations" but not that the locations are "convenient."

It is OK to say an auto dealer sells "new and used cars" and that an amusement park is open "most holidays" but don't say, "(dealer) now has the new 2006 Monte Carlo in stock" or that amusement park "offers a Halloween alternative" by being open on Halloween.

An NCE TV station can show attractively prepared food in a restaurant, but no prices and no "happy people." In fact, people cannot be portrayed as enjoying using an product!

TV underwriting announcements cannot have connected audio and video. It is OK to show a Delta jet taking off, and a hamburger being cooked, but not the roar of the jet engine or the sizzle of the hamburger being cooked.

NCE stations can hold contests and give away prices supplied by businesses, but the station cannot brag about "how great" the price is.

Educational stations can commercials if they do not receive compensation in any form for doing so. The question, "What is a station's motive for airing the commercial?" Apparently an historic / nostalgia program on "the best commercials of the 90s" would be OK.

Can a station air a "Yard Sale of the Air", allowing members of the public to sell household items at no charge? Underwriting professionals differ on this issue.

Prospective underwriters should submit a proposed script in advance before asking an NCE to air an announcement for a business.