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Broadcasters association to ask judge to re-hear case

Could Mississippi casinos finally get to broadcast gaming’s images, sounds?

The Mississippi Broadcasters Association was expected this week to again ask the U.S. District Court judge in Jackson to reopen a case that would, in essence, allow Mississippi-based casinos to actually show images of gamblers gambling on their TV commercials or publicize a blackjack tournament on the radio.

Frustrated over the lack of action by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and bolstered by action in sister courts in Las Vegas and New Jersey, Leonard Van Slyke, an attorney with Heidelberg & Woodliff, P.A., who represents the MBA, said he would file a petition asking U.S. District Court Judge Tom Lee to reconsider the case MBA filed in his court at least two years ago.

Van Slyke said Lee had opted to hold-off acting on the case while a similar lawsuit was pending in the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans at the time. That case, brought by the New Orleans Broadcasters Association, upheld an existing and long-established broadcasting ban and eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was returned by the high court which asked the Fifth to reconsider its opinion in light of 44 Liquormart Inc. v Rhode Island.

There the court said a state law banning liquor price advertising violated the First Amendment rights of commercial “speakers.” In that case, the court said the government did not show that the benefits of retarding truthful advertising was outweighed by the substantial societal interest of preventing alcohol abuse.

In the case of casinos, the government — or the Federal Communication Commission which is charged with enforcement — is relying on 1934 legislation enacted by Congress that, at first, restricted gambling advertising from the radio, and later, from television. The courts in Las Vegas and New Jersey have found the ban unconstitutional and the Supreme Court has upheld the decision by at least one of the courts.

To add to the confusion, the law doesn’t pertain to casinos operated by Native American tribes or on their lands such as Silver Star in Philadelphia, or other forms of gambling such as state-run lotteries, dog and horse tracks, bingo halls and some charitable fund-raisers. And the law doesn’t completely ban casino advertising, only certain pictures that show gambling or mention “casino” unless part of the name, i.e. Grand Casino.

Proponents of lifting the ban — first the casinos and then broadcasters — believe that action by the courts and the growing confusion and exceptions heralds the way for it to become extinct.

“It’s a law that’s definitely going to disappear in my opinion,” said Ernie Stebbins, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Association.

But at the same time, Stebbins said he doesn’t anticipate a flood of casino operators rushing to change their marketing approach or strategy for a couple of reasons. One, is that casinos are comfortable promoting the entire experience: golf courses, live entertainment, shopping, etc. The other reason, and one on which he isn’t quite as anxious to elaborate, is the backlash from groups simply opposed to anything related to gambling showing up on television and radio.

“Actually showing gambling or talking about odds is not important right now,” Stebbins said, later adding. “The brand name awareness is out there and that’s what their most concerned with, at least the operators.”

But the law has ramifications beyond just casinos. Cities and counties wanting to promote gaming are also limited in how they tell their story.

Webster Franklin, executive director of the Tunica County Convention & Visitors Bureau, which is set to begin an extensive national print marketing campaign in the coming weeks, said while his current budget doesn’t allow for television advertising, the limitations have been considered. To stay within the boundaries of the law, but provide potential visitors with a true sense of what Tunica has to offer, Webster said the benefits of producing a video has been seriously weighed.

The video, which could show the inner workings of Tunica’s 10 casinos, could be distributed free-of-charge or with a deposit fee refundable when the visitor comes to Tunica and returns the tape.

Why go to such extremes? Simple, Franklin said, the sights and sounds afforded by television, and to a lesser extent radio, more accurately portray what the casinos have to offer.

“It spices up the action,” he said.

And some predict that casinos, particularly in highly competitive markets like Tunica and the Gulf Coast, could expand their advertising campaigns given the chance, or, at the least, put more of their advertising dollar into television and radio and less in print, which doesn’t have the same content restrictions.

David Simmons, president of the Memphis-based advertising firm Rutland Simmons Group, Inc., which has done work for casinos in Tunica, Biloxi and Shreveport for the last six years, said while casino operators won’t make a made dash to his offices to redo their television and radio spots, it will happen.

“A couple of people will jump out with it very quickly,” he said, although their uses may be somewhat limited.

Instead of immediately changing the way they market the entire operation, Simmons said operators may choose to pick and choose certain events, such as promoting a poker tournament.

But Simmons also said advertising casinos on television has a few hurdles to climb before, or even if, it will become common place in the South. One, he agreed that public image and concerns about a backlash from those opposed to gaming, will slow some operators to act. And, two, Simmons said while showing the inside of a casino does better convey the atmosphere, most don’t look that different inside for the public to differentiate.

So although broadcasters were admittedly slow to jump on the bandwagon, lifting the ban may ultimately benefit that industry more than casinos.

Simmons said advertising by his casino customers breaks down this way: 40% print, 40% broadcasting (60% TV and 40% radio) and 20% outdoor. He said broadcasting’s percentage could change as much as 15-20% over the long-term with the bulk coming from print.

For Leon Long, vice president and general manager of WLOX-TV in Biloxi, that would be welcomed. In 1997, less than 0.25% of WLOX’s total billing came from casinos, he said. He predicts that although Mississippi broadcasters are now on the front lines trying to fight the ban, it will be television and radio stations in states like Florida that will actually have more potential for revenue increases.

Still, he is optimistic.

“I would hope some of these casinos would find a creative way to advertise on TV and radio” in Mississippi, Long said.

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