FCC: Radio, TV On School Buses Should Be Decided At Local Level

The FCC has concluded that the decision on whether radio and TV programs on school buses are in the public interest are best decided at the local level "where individual school districts in close partnership with parents and other stakeholders can weigh the particular benefits and potential harms of the service in their communities."

That came in yet another report to Congress concerning kids and content. This one is in response to an amendment to the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009 (essentially the bill appropriating money so the government can continue to function) calling on it to study the issue specifically in regards to BusRadio, the only service currently serving school buses with such a system, the FCC pointed out.

The commission also pointed out that since BusRadio holds no FCC licenses, so is not subject to the regulatory oversight the commission has over broadcast services. But it did refer to its broadcast kids programming rules to suggest that BusRadio, and by extension any other service that wanted to operate in that space, could follow the same guidelines. Those include prohibitions on overcommercialization, host-selling.

The report was careful to use words like "could" rather than "should" given the limits of its authority. But it did make some observations about BusRadio's business practices.

"Our review of the record leads us to conclude that the amount of commercial matter distributed on BusRadio likely exceeds that claimed by the company," said the commission. "In addition, the manner in which BusRadio presents content to its audience, i.e., without separating commercials from programming, complicates the process of quantifying accurately the amount of advertising actually distributed, and has the potential to confuse children. BusRadio could conform its programming practices to standards established by the ommission for broadcast television licensees and independent regulatory bodies such as CARU. These standards are designed to address several of the concerns raised in this proceeding regarding BusRadio’s commercial content."

The Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood, which pressed Congress for the report, called it "essential reading for any school district considering a contract with BusRadio." It pointed to the FCC comments about the commercial load and unsufficient buffer between ads and content.

But BusRadio President Steven Shulman said his company was fine with the report. "We're really pleased," he said. "They had to include some of the speculation from the advocacy groups, but all in all the decision that it should be made locally we've known all along."

He said the way the process works now, there is a presentation to the local school board, where there is a local meeting for parents and teachers to attend, then a Democratic decision is made on whether or not to put it on their buses. "This has happened in every district that has signed on in the past four years."

He took issue with the suggestion that the service had more commercial matter than advertised. "It is all speculation. It doesn't. If they had gone through the programming that we have provided them and really counted up the minutes that were both commercials and promotions, it is far less than the eight minutes that we self-regulate.

As to not having the buffer between programming and ads, he said that their DJS are featured in spots, but says they don't do host-selling per se and adds: "We are not trying to hide that it is an ad. The music stops and a 30-second commercial comes on."

He also said he plans to meet with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, and says if that is something they need to discuss, " I have not problem putting some sort of disclaimer in there saying that this is an advertisement."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.