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Activists, Industry Deal on Kids' Rules

Kids TV advocates and representatives and media companies, including the Big Four Networks, have agreed on changes to the FCC's digital kids TV rules that would allow more promos in kids shows, host selling, and preemptions for sports and other programming.

They also agreed to voluntarily adopt the changes if the FCC has not acted on the proposals by March 1, 2006.

That would be problematic given that, even if the FCC hasn't acted, the rules, which kick in Jan. 1, will still be in place (unless the courts intervene), which would mean that broadcasters would still have to count all promos in kids shows as ads, no matter what the private agreement between the parties.

Maybe not so problematic after all. Jeff McIntyre, co-chairman of the The Children's Media Policy Coalition, told B&C they had had meeting with the FCC over the past two days and were confident that the commission would accept the deal and rule on it before Jan. 1.

The deal, which both sides say they have presented to the FCC, would leave in place the requirement that broadcasters air three hours of children's TV per channel in both analog and digital. That was the key issue of the coalition, says McIntyre.
In addition, the media companies agreed not to challenge limits on the display of commercial Web sites during children's programming. Under the rules, scheduled to kick in Jan. 1, those displays would count toward the ad limits in kids programming.

The groups agreed to a modified form of host selling in which the use of TV characters to sell products to kids would be confined to specific areas of a Web site if that Web address was displayed in shows that featured those characters.

The key, says McIntyre, is that there will have to be a buffer between the character and a sales pitch: "There won't be a direct link between Raven on The Disney Channel and Raven pitching a CD or cellphone."

Arguably the biggest deal was on program promotion in kids shows. The FCC rules as currently constituted count any program promotion in a kids show as an advertisement, reducing the amount of paid ads that can air during the show. Under the agreement, show promos would not count as ads, but the broadcasters would agree to a limit on promotions not appropriate to children.
In addition, there would be no numerical limits, as the current rules contain, on the ability of broadcasters to preempt kids shows for live sports and other programming.
The deal was among The Children's Media Policy Coalition and a bunch of media companies. The coalition comprises Children Now, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, the National PTA, Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ, and Action Coalition for Media Education.

The media companies are Viacom, Disney, Fox, NBC Universal, Time Warner, 4Kids Entertainment, Association of National Advertisers and Discovery.

The two sides had both gone to court over the rules, which the FCC adopted in fall 2004 as a roadmap for digital kids programming. Some of the rules, specifically the ad limits, also applied to analog broadcasting and to cable. Media companies balked, first at the FCC, then, threatening to try to get rid of all the rules, in the courts.

The FCC currently has petitions before it to reconsider the rules, and to stay the Jan. 1 date until it acts on the petitions.
Independently, there are challenges by Disney, Viacom and the United Church of Christ that are currently before the Federal Appeals Court for the Sixth Circuit, but they will go away if the FCC gives the go-ahead..

Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey (D-Mass.), one of the founders of the 1990 Children's TV Act, was pleased by the deal. "This is a triumph of conversation over litigation," he said. 
"I am very pleased that both sides have abandoned litigation in favor of the productive conversation that has led to this proposal.  This will considerably strengthen the protection of children from commercial excesses while allowing for industry practices which have matured under the current Children's TV rules."