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FCC To Revisit Kids TV Rules

The FCC is opening an inquiry into its children's TV rules.

That was the word from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski at a hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee on what, if any, changes Congress should make to the Children's TV Act to reflect the explosion of new sources for content since the law was passed in 1990.

In his testimony, Genachowski said that he applauded the committee for taking a new look at the act, and said the commission would do likewise.

"I believe an examination of the Children's Television Act in light of the current marketplace and technologies merits the attention of both this Committee and the Commission," he said, according to a copy of his written testimony, "and I look forward to working closely with the Committee as it proceeds on its work in this area."

And look for the FCC to cast its view wider than broadcasting to include cable, satellite, video games, mobile video, and the Internet.

"Since the Children's Television Act ("the Act") was passed in 1990, an array of new choices-direct broadcast satellite, Internet-based video, mobile services, video offerings from telephone companies, and video games-have joined broadcast and cable television as a daily reality for millions of American families," he said.

The act prompted the FCC to write rules requiring broadcasters to air three hours per week of educational and informational kids programming, identify that programming on-air and self-certify that it is educational and informational. The act also limits the commercials in kids shows on broadcast and cable, to 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays.

The FCC already did some digital-age tweaking of the act several years ago, including extending the three-hour requirement to free digital multicast channels.

But while Genachowski said that the wealth of new digital media outlets justified re-opening the act, he also said that broadcasting remains an "essential medium" and that it was still "uniquely accessible to all Americans," a phrase that echoes one of the Supreme Court's justification for broadcast content regulation, though in that case the court specifically cited access to kids. Broadcasters, by contrast, have recently ramped up their argument that given all those media choices Genachowski cited, the uniqueness of that access is called into question, if not mooted.

By contrast, Genachowski said the commission's "Responsibility to enforce the Act with respect to broadcast licensees remains vital," he said that it was appropriate to recognize the economic challenges faced by many broadcasters," that enforcing the act remained "essential."

But he also pointed to the rise of cable, satellite, video games and mobile services, saying they were "all elements of the digital revolution" since the act was first passed.

He said the commission's inquiry would include the amount of "quality educational programming" for kids in the marketplace, and the ability of parents to find it, including "reviews, recommendations and other useful information." Genachowski knows something about that. He is a founding board member of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that provides reviews and recommendations to a number of industry players including top cable operators.

He said the goals of the inquiry should be focusing on education, protecting children from "inappropriate marketing," empowering parents with content-control tools (he referred to the FCC's ongoing look at those technologies for a report to Congress due next month), and "recognizing the appropriate roles of the government, parents and the private sector while honoring and abiding by the First Amendment."

The chairman said one of the results of the new inquiry will likely be the conclusion that interactive ads directed at kids will be off limits unless parents opt in. 

"Five years ago, the Commission reached the tentative conclusion for DTV that, absent a parental ‘opt-in,' it should prohibit interactivity during children's programming that connects kids to commercial material." Genachowski said. "I believe that the versatility of digital television will provide new and beneficial economic opportunities to broadcasters - a critical goal, especially in this time of economic challenge. At the same time,protecting kids from inappropriate commercialization remains an essential objective in the digital TV era. While of course the Commission will study the record fully, at this point I'm inclined to agree that the Agency should make its tentative conclusion final and say that interactive ads directed at children are off-limits without an opt-in by parents."
He also said the FCC would revamp the children's portion of the Web site to make it easier for parents to check on the educational and informational programming being provided by broadcasters. "There is useful information hidden deep in the site about educational programming provided by broadcasters," he said. "That and other relevant information for parents should be easier to find and easier to use.

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.