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Kids TV's Health Kick

Kids cable networks have a new message for their pint-sized viewers: It is cool to be fit. As the debates on healthful eating, children's obesity and responsible advertising rage in Washington and with nervous advertisers on Madison Avenue, kids TV networks are trying to tackle the issue as well.

Earlier this year, the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) called on TV networks, stations and food marketers to eliminate junk- and fast-food advertising to anyone under 18. That got the attention of food companies and networks.

Days later, food giant Kraft announced plans to eliminate snack-food advertising to children under 11 years old. Last week, McDonald's, which launched a “balanced-lifestyles initiative” a year ago, announced a major campaign to promote healthier eating for kids.

The CSPI estimates that fast-food and snack-food companies spend $10 billion to $12 billion a year marketing to kids and teens. If, as Merrill Lynch forecasters predict, kids programming is to net $910 million in this spring's upfront—12% more than last year—those kids and teens networks are going to have to play nice with their biggest advertisers to get there.

Last week, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and three other senators introduced the Children and Media Research Advancement Act, which would authorize the National Institutes of Health to conduct research studying the link between media and child development, and between media consumption and obesity. Clinton was responding to a new Kaiser Foundation Report that concluded that kids spend 8 hours and 33 minutes daily exposed to all media, including computers and videogames—up more than an hour from 1999. Eighty percent said their parents set no rules about TV viewing.

“Kids can understand balance and make decisions when they are empowered with information,” Nick EVP of Public Affairs Marva Smalls told advertisers and media buyers at the network's upfront presentation last week in New York.

TV has been under increasing fire not only for junk-food ads in kids shows but for contributing to the inactivity that leads to obesity, which is emerging as one of the nation's leading health problems. That is why, even before the latest flare-up, Nickelodeon went dark for a day last fall, urging kids to “Get Out and Play.”

Nickelodeon will allocate 10% of its programming day to healthy-eating themes and similarly focused PSAs, as well as online content reinforcing the campaign. There will still be some Nickelodeon-style silliness to keep it from seeming like a lecture. (One spot confides that eating more vegetables helps produce smellier flatulence, which apparently is considered a good thing by kids.)

Cartoon Network kicked off its “Get Animated” PSA campaign Feb. 28 with on-air, online, print and off-channel advertising featuring Cartoon characters. Additional nutrition messages will appear on, in nutrition and fitness computer-animation programming created with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and during a 30-market tour in May showcasing kids' physical activities sponsored by Turner Network Sales and local cable affiliates.

Disney's latest health-advocacy programming is Breakfast With Bear, a morning show the network is adding to its preschool-targeted Playhouse Disney block in June. Among other healthy habits, the show will promote wholesome breakfasts.