Elimination of the broadcasting industry's self-imposed curbs on the length and frequency of television commercials could lead to relaxation of other advertising limits, such as those banning liquor promotion over the airwaves.
Most industry observers predict that viewers will see little immediate change as a result of an agreement last week by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) to drop its Code of Good Practice. But the temptation of increased revenue from more commercials - some advertising once-taboo products - is likely to lead some broadcasters to test the balance between audience approval and maximum profit, industry observers say.
The code was dropped as part of a settlement of a three-year Justice Department antitrust suit against the NAB. The Justice Department maintained that portions of the voluntary NAB code that restricted advertising time was a form of price-fixing.
The NAB's voluntary code was nearly the only regulation for ads the industry had for 30 years. There is a federal ban on cigarette ads and a Federal Communications Commission guideline that limits advertising air time to 16 minutes per hour. There also are FCC and Federal Trade Commission regulations governing false and deceptive advertising.
Among other things, the NAB code limited advertising to one product per 30 second spot, allowed no more than five consecutive commercials, and no more than 9 1/2 minutes of advertising per hour. Last March in Washington, US District Judge Harold W. Greene struck down the 30-second requirement and remanded the other two restrictions for trial. The NAB suspended advertising content portions of the code, which banned ads for liquor, firearms, and contraceptives. Last week's settlement made that suspension permanent and aroused some concern among consumer groups that it would open the door to liquor advertising.
Recently, for example, a Worcester, Mass., TV station and a Chicago radio station have been advertising vodka. Other attempts to advertise liquor after the suspension of the code met public opposition: Public reaction cut short a Boston radio station's liquor ad campaign, and an Indianapolis TV station reports audience surveys prevented liquor advertising from ever leaving the planning stages there.
''If the code had not been lifted, I doubt there would be this advertising (or the interest in it),'' says Michael Jacobson, executive director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group.
The major networks say they'll maintain their own ad standards - which they claim are as tough or tougher than NAB rules. But small local stations, independents as well as network affiliates, are under no obligation to abide by network advertising standards. These small stations face stiff competition from cable TV. As a result, Mr. Jacobson suggests, these stations will be among the first to bend advertising tradition - as evidenced by the trickle of liquor advertising already hitting the airwaves.
Although the code was voluntary, NAB members adhered to it fairly strictly, NAB officials say. Often, flagrant abuse of the standards was avoided because the FCC could consider that abuse in its license renewal process.
''I support getting the industry out of fixing prices, but I also think there needs to be limits to assure public airwaves are not overcommercialized,'' explains Samuel Simon, executive director of the Telecommunication Research and Action Center. ''The FCC said for years the only reason they didn't (regulate commercials) was because of the NAB code. Therefore the FCC should take action now.''
But the FCC is maintaining a hands-off policy, says Randy Nichols, chief of staff for commission chairman Mark Fowler. The chairman believes broadcast advertising should not be regulated any differently from newspapers, says Mr. Nichols.
Broadcasters argue that commercial time and content are dictated as much by money as by fiat. They claim that too many ads can cause a loss of viewers, which in turn means lost advertising for a station.