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Martin Unhappy with Snack-Food Marketing

Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin told Congress Tuesday that he is disappointed that more media companies have not volunteered to limit food and beverage ads targeted toward kids and left the door open for the commission to mandate such limits.

He also blamed the failure of an industry/government task force to come up with recommendations for reining in snack-food marketing in part on the unwillingness of "most media companies to place any limit on the advertising of unhealthy foods on children's programming." That task force has yet to produce a report after several delays.

That came in prepared testimony for a hearing on food marketing to children Tuesday in the Senate Appropriations Committee's Health and Human Services Subcommittee.

Martin said that while "it was -- and always is -- my hope that we will not have to resort to actual requirements," he "strongly urged " media companies to voluntarily limit their ads, but "in the end, no widespread voluntary commitment on behalf of the media industry was forthcoming. On the voluntary side, I am left to conclude that, sadly, no limit was even close to being presented."

He also cited a move by Britain to ban snack-food ads during kids' shows.

Martin did cite the voluntary commitments by some major food and beverage companies to cut back on ads for "unhealthy foods" to kids under 12, and he said Disney and ION Media Networks both made "aggressive commitments." He added that those voluntary efforts were a byproduct of the task-force effort.

He also gave a shout-out to Discovery Kids, Cartoon Network and Sesame Workshop for taking steps to limit licensing of their characters to pomote unhealthy foods. NBC is another company that took steps to cut back on snack ads.

But there were others, he addedd, that only agreed to limit character usage with the "loophole" of special occasions. "May a character then endorse candy or cakes for birthdays, President’s Day, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Chanukah?," he asked.

Media companies have been under pressure from Washington to cut the marketing fat. House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) specifically called for cutting snack ads out of the shows that qualify for the FCC's educational/informational designation. Stations must run at least three hours per week of such programming.

Martin told Markey in a letter last May that he believes the FCC has the authority to step in and regulate kids' ads, if need be.

Martin said that could include limiting or eliminating ads from FCC-approved kids' shows if the task force failed to come up with sufficient self-regulation. He also told Markey any such regulation should target cable, saying that not to do so would be "inappropriate and ineffective."

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.