WASHINGTON (CNS) — The television industry has asked the Federal Communications Commission to relax — if not outright get rid of — regulations on children’s TV.
Advocates for children’s TV are saying, “Not so fast.”
On Aug. 4, Angela Campbell, one of the directors of the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law School, filed comments with the FCC opposing its proposed “modernization of media regulation” of children’s TV on behalf of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Center for Digital Democracy.
“For over 40 years, the FCC has recognized that television stations have public interest obligations to limit advertising on children’s programs and to provide programs designed to educate children,” Campbell said. Relaxing the mandatory minimum of three hours a week for children’s educational and informational programming and the mandatory maximum of 10-and-a-half minutes per hour of ads on kids’ shows on weekends — 12 minutes per hour on weekdays — “would harm children by exposing them to excessive and unfair marketing and depriving them of quality programming,” she said.
“There is a robust body of research demonstrating that children experience difficulty identifying and defending against television advertising, even when there is clear separation, and that branded and other types of programming that blurs the distinctions makes it even harder for children,” Campbell added. “Children have even greater difficulty when the advertising is interwoven with content, as often is the case with sponsored videos, unboxing videos, and influencer marketing targeted to children on YouTube.”
Campbell scoffed at the notion that broadcasters need more flexibility in meeting the FCC-required programming goals. “The experience before adoption of the 1996 rules has shown that when stations have more flexibility, they simply do not meet the program needs of children,” she said.
As it is, the five major commercial broadcast networks already have sidestepped one regulation, Campbell noted. She cited a June 2016 article by David Robb in Deadline Hollywood on how they did so:
“To qualify for this exemption (from the ad limits), and to run over 50 percent more ads than would be allowed on younger kids’ shows, all the stations have to do is tell the FCC that their target audience is children aged 13-16,” Robb wrote a year ago. “And that’s what every ABC, CBS, Fox and CW station in the country has done. Quarterly reports they file with the FCC show that the target audience for every single one of their kids’ shows is now the 13-16 demographic. And NBC will be following suit later this year.”
Broadcasters also have asked the FCC to dispense with the obligation to air at least three hours of children’s programming on their digital subchannels, yet also to be able to move the obligatory three hours of shows from their primary channel to a subchannel. “We oppose this request since many children do not have access to the multicast channels because the FCC only requires cable systems to carry a television station’s primary channel,” Campbell said.
A potential trump card in all of this: federal law, specifically the Children’s Television Act of 1990. In it, Congress told the FCC to “prescribe standards applicable to commercial television broadcast licensees with respect to the time devoted to commercial matter in conjunction with children’s television programming,” and to “limit the duration of advertising in children’s television programming to not more than 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends and not more than 12 minutes per hour on weekdays.”
Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, lauded the role of the U.S. bishops in children’s TV issues during an Aug. 30 telephone interview with Catholic News Service. The bishops “really played a key role in creating these rules back in the ’90s,” Chester said.
But he dreads what the FCC could do by acceding to broadcasters’ requests.
“Young people are an extremely lucrative market for advertisers today because they are consuming video on all their devices, providing multiple opportunities for markets and all kinds of advertisers, including junk food companies and toymakers, to target them,” Chester said.
Moreover, “let’s remember television has changed. It has greater capacity, greater interactivity similar to what you find online. The avarice you see from the broadcast lobbyists is that they can squeeze and wring much more money out of children,” he added. In the past year, Fox and NBC both announced their intent to make target audiences more easily available to advertisers using available digital technology.
“The FCC basically has said all regulations must go fire sale under the current chair, (Ajit) Pai. And they want to sweep away any consumer safeguards, including for children,” Chester told CNS. “By inviting the TV industry to make proposal as to what rules should be thrown overboard, the FCC is setting the stage for doing precisely what we fear: that we will abandon the last serious public commitment the broadcast industry has, and allow TV to track and target children whenever they watch video, whether on television or online.”
Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.