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FCC 'Safe Viewing' Report Tees Up More Study

The FCC's report to Congress on the state of media-screening technologies, due by the end of this month, comes to two broad conclusions, but does not suggest any action items beyond opening an inquiry prompted by its survey of the current content-control landscape for a variety of media. That inquiry includes a request for better data, something that should come as no surprise for followers of the current commission.

The FCC's two conclusions: 1) There is no universal ratings system in place, and 2) better educating parents on how to use the existing systems would likely help drive adoption.

That's according to sources familiar with the report, which will be delivered to Congress by the end of the month, according to a Media Bureau spokesperson. The deadline is Aug. 29.

The report doesn't do anything or promise to do anything other than launch a notice of inquiry, said multiple sources.

That squares with the FCC's charter in the Child Safe Viewing Act, which gave the FCC an Aug. 29 deadline for a report surveying existing technologies for the most advanced methods of video content "blocking"/"empowering" technologies, including on wired and wireless platforms and across a variety of platforms including TVs, DVD players, VCRs, cable set-tops and wireless handsets.

An original version of the bill, which got as far as Senate passage, would have directed the FCC to take action on the report's conclusions, including mandating a new content-management regime if necessary. But that mandate was dropped to secure House passage, as was language teeing up the inquiry by saying that video "erodes the ability of parents to develop responsible attitudes and behavior in their children," and that "there is a compelling government interest in empowering parents to limit their children's exposure to harmful television content."

The version that passed dropped the pejorative characterizations and the mandate and stuck with a survey.

The FCC report does discuss rating commercials, something that concerns the ad industry. "That is one of the things to be teed up for the NOI," said one source. But, again, it does not draw conclusions, and while it discusses a dozen or more content-management regimes by way of covering the waterfront, it does not "give its blessing" to any, said the sources.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is a founding board member of Common Sense, and has said he prefers parental over governmental content management where feasible.

There are also discussions in the report about a way to watermark content to imbed a rating that would apply across whatever platform the content was accessed on. But there is other discussion that that watermarking could be a backdoor entrance to digital rights management and the FCC should steer clear.

"It is a very long report," said one source. "It contains no significant recommendations to Congress." Instead, it goes over a lengthy record on more than a dozen issues.

The report also talks about the cable and satellite industry's use of Common Sense Media's ratings/review information for video content. Those users include top cable operators Comcast, Time Warner and Cox.

The report relied in part on comments solicited in an initial NOI March 2 seeking input on how to implement the Act.

Just what authority the FCC has in the cable, online and wireless spaces will be a central issue in whatever the FCC decides to do or not to do on media content management.

One of the reasons the FCC will open the second inquiry is to get better data, a mantra of the Genachowski FCC. For example, there have been criticisms that the V-chip/ratings system is too tough to use and that people aren't using it. The NOI will likely ask for data on why people are not using it and what the FCC might do to improve it, including social science data both on people's willingness and ability to use the existing system.

One source characterized it this way: "The report says: 'These people say x, others respond y. This is an important issue, but we don't have enough data to make a decision so we will be dealing with it in a forthcoming notice of inquiry.'"

The chairman has already promised Congress that the FCC will take a new look at children's TV regulations in general, with the report and ensuing inquiry--likely launched this fall, said one source--the first step in that process.

A spokesperson for Senator Pryor said his office has asked for a copy of the report as soon as it is issued.