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FCC Revives Commercial Ad Limit Audits for Cable, Satellite

The FCC has revived its audits of cable and satellite operators for compliance with ad limits in kids' shows.

That came after conversations with the Government Accounting Office over a just-released report to Congress on the FCC's implementation of the Children's Television Act and trends in children's programming.

The report recommended that closer scrutiny, as well as coming up with voluntary guidelines on what qualifies as educational and informational programming, which has been a knock on the rules since the days when one broadcaster offered up The Flintstones as providing history lessons. It also recommended the FCC do more to inform parents through the Parents Place portion of its Web site.

In a letter to Mark Goldstein at GAO responding to the report's findings that the FCC needed to "develop and implement a strategy for overseeing cable operators' and satellite providers' compliance with the required advertising limits," Media Bureau Chief Bill Lake said a plan for new audits was already in place.

Unlike broadcasters, who have to have self-reported violations of ad limits through the mechanism of license renewals, cable operators have no similar mechanism and have never self-reported any violations.  The Act limits ads to of 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends and 12 minutes on weekdays.

For example, the FCC has issued about 7,000 violations -- admonishments or fines -- against more than stations in the last two license renewal cycles (1996 and 2004), most of them self-reported violations of limits or prohibitions on host-selling or failure to maintain proper records. By contrast, no cable operator has ever self-reported a violation, according to FCC officials talking with GAO, and FCC audits in 2003 and 2004 turned up only 7 violations.

The FCC discontinued its audits of cable and satellite kids in 2004 because "because most entities were found to be in compliance with the rules and because enforcement staff and resources were dedicated to higher-priority needs." An FCC official told GAO that there "may" have been violations by cable and satellite since 2004.

The GAO report found that children's programming has significantly increased on broadcasting and cable since 1998, including on more outlets and at more times of day. It gives a shout out to multicasting channels as one reason for broadcasters' increased output, which included a dramatic increase of 477% in New York. It found that the average weekly hours aired more than doubled in six of the eight markets it studied.

It attributed the boost to two trends: "(1) increases in the number of channels and broadcast stations and (2) the emergence of some broadcast stations that air large amounts of children's programming."

Cable and satellite have also boosted their output through the addition of new kids channels and the increase in subscribers able to access them.

In response to the specific points in the report, which was entitled "FCC Could Improve Efforts to Oversee Enforcement and Provide Public Information," Lake suggested all those were being addressed.

In addition to reinstating the cable and satellite audits, Lake said he was passing along the suggestion of working with industry on informational and educational programming guidelines to its Consumer Advisory Committee for recommendations, and that it would revamp the Web site "so that children's core programming information is more easily searchable and accessible."

The report was in response to a request from Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.).