Tune in to gambling, broadcasters ask Md.

Stations: With millions in revenue at stake, broadcasters press for the right to carry out-of-state casino and track gambling ads in Maryland.

February 10, 2000|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

If area broadcasters have their way, you may soon tune in your favorite radio station and hear advertising for gambling in Dover Downs or Atlantic City.

A lawyer representing a broadcasters' trade association has asked the Maryland attorney general's office for an opinion on whether radio stations can advertise out-of-state casinos and tracks, claiming there are potentially millions of dollars at stake, with accompanying tax benefits for the state.

"Our position is that there are U.S. constitutional protections that allow free speech, even about gambling," said James B. Astrachan, an attorney representing the Maryland, D.C., Delaware Broadcasters Association.

"It's hard for the state of Maryland to talk out of two sides of its mouth, saying we have to protect our citizens from gambling, yet there's the lottery. Because states engage in their own gambling in the form of lotteries, how can they possibly say, `We can, but you can't?' "

Only the states that don't permit any form of gambling could legitimately argue that they have an interest in protecting their citizens, Astrachan said. But Maryland spends $13.5 million annually for promotion of the lottery.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general's office said she did not know how soon her office would make a decision on the matter.

"We've got to look at the analysis in the light of the recent Supreme Court case," said Andrea D. Johnson, assistant attorney general and principal counsel to the Maryland Lottery. "Right now, we're just looking at it."

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not limit speech about gambling. Before the ruling, the Federal Communications Commission had prohibited casinos from advertising on radio and television.

The court ruling followed a request from a group of Louisiana broadcasters to be allowed to run advertisements about casinos in Louisiana. A parallel case could be made for Maryland, Astrachan said.

"A lot of the states really think that they can regulate what their citizens can see and hear about tobacco and gambling and liquor," Astrachan said.

"But, the Supreme Court is really going in the opposite direction. It's saying commercial speech should be treated the same as noncommercial speech as long as it's not deceptive or basically dishonest."

The issue is one that radio stations and their general managers can't afford to take lightly, because a violation could result in criminal prosecution or license forfeiture.

Broadcasters are allowed to run advertisements for shows, food and rooms -- which promote the casinos as resort destinations -- but the ads can't talk about gambling.

And the effectiveness of such advertising has proved limited, according to industry experts.

"Broadcast [could be] excellent for selling the sizzle of gaming," said Chip Weinman, president of the Maryland, D.C., Delaware Broadcasters Association.

"It's really hard to get people excited about buffets and nice rooms. It just makes sense if they want to get more bang for their buck, they'll advertise what they really do."

Being able to court a new area of advertising is an enviable position for broadcasters, Weinman said.

"New business is what broadcasters treasure the most," he said. "It's rare to see a whole category drop in their lap like this."

Weinman said he couldn't estimate the amount of advertising revenue that a reinterpretation of the law might generate.

"I can't tell you the dollars for sure," he said. "But we know that they'd be substantial. They'd probably be a major category along the lines of a retail store or an auto dealer."

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