The Mixed Message to Kids

Imagine a school-age child channel-surfing among his or her favorite networks.

On PBS, Arthur is being taught about the importance of conserving water.

On Nickelodeon's Fairly OddParents, Timmy Turner is learning first-hand that eating too many sweets could make everyone so big that it might move the earth off its axis.

And Playhouse Disney interstitial program Captain Carlos promotes the superpower energy that can come only from eating fresh fruits and vegetables.

And in between, at least on the commercial channels, here comes a quick word from one of our sponsors. Perhaps it's a big fast-food chain. Or a frosted cereal marketed as part of a “nutritious breakfast.”

Balancing responsible, educational topics with advertising for products that many educators or nutritionists believe aren't good for kids is a topic just about as old as television itself. The first critics of children's TV used to howl about kid-show hosts who cajoled tykes to get their parent to buy them some sugary product. It's an even bigger issue today.

What's the best way to strike a healthy balance between how TV educates and markets to its most impressionable demographic? Is television doing enough to police itself, or should more be done?

The answer depends upon whom you ask. Family-friendly networks continue to pump out a steady stream of politically correct content, while launching a slew of education- and health-related outreach initiatives.

And yet obesity continues to skyrocket among America's youth.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) report that, since 1980, the obesity rate has tripled among adolescents and doubled among younger kids. In May, the FTC and HHS released recommendations for reworking marketing campaigns geared to kids.

“Food companies, including food processors, supermarkets, and fast-food restaurants, and children's-entertainment companies are all very concerned about being blamed for the rising obesity rate in kids,” says Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). “And with good reason: A lot of their products and practices do contribute to kids' poor eating habits.”


One thing kids are consuming more of is television itself. The Kaiser Family Foundation last year reported that viewership by people ages 8-18 had increased one hour over the past five years, to 8½ hours each day. Moreover, Mediamark Research in its 2005 study found that 58% of kids 6-11 say they continue watching TV when commercials come on. While spending on kids TV is trending down in part because of new pressures, it's still a market that has generated about $1.6 billion in ad revenue through August of this year.

James Steyer, CEO/founder of Common Sense Media, a group that informs parents of media content appropriate for kids and teenagers, notes that kids spend more time with media than they do with their parents or in a classroom: “It can have an impact on health, whether it's obesity, violent behavior, sexual behavior or eating disorders.”

Melissa Caldwell, senior director of programs at the Parents Television Council (PTC), gives TV generally high marks for preschool programming, but she's not as kind to programming for older children. “We are increasingly hearing from parents concerned about cartoons meant for youngsters that have disrespectful attitudes and behavior and gross-out, bathroom humor,” she says.

Still, the issue of the moment is TV's effect on young people's health. In September, the Federal Communications Commission formed a task force on childhood obesity that will likely pressure food companies and media outlets to strengthen voluntary restrictions on marketing to kids.

Already, Walt Disney has promised to limit the licensing of its characters to promote mostly nutritious products. And it will replace junk food with healthy items at its theme parks. Both Disney and Kraft have taken steps to more comprehensively address nutrition standards.

But as self-regulation becomes a little more urgent, the industry's Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU). is revising those guidelines.

It would be difficult to miss what media outlets are doing to promote healthy lifestyles; even some critics will admit that programming has improved.


In addition to the healthy habits and positive attitudes in its programs, Disney—which operates Disney Channel, Toon Disney and ABC's Saturday-morning block—is also the media sponsor of YMCA Healthy Kids Day.

4Kids Entertainment, which distributes shows like Yu-Gi-Oh and handles programming for Fox's Saturday-morning block, is a popular PTC target for producing programs that, according to the council, are simply extended commercials loaded with inappropriate content.

But Alfred Kahn, chairman/CEO of 4Kids, defends the networks' positive messages. “The nature of our entertainment,” he says, “is based on messages that will help kids in social situations, showing them the difference between appropriate behaviors and behaviors that aren't.”

Other networks have rolled out successful initiatives and corporate ties. Cartoon Network has “Rescuing Recess,” which raises funds for schoolyard supplies, and for five years, the network has been the media sponsor for Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF. Discovery Kids has long had a commercial- and sponsor-free block for preschoolers: Ready Set Learn is based on an educational curriculum that promotes the benefits of being persistent and resilient, while also stressing a healthy lifestyle. And Qubo—a joint venture of Ion Media, NBC, Scholastic, Classic Media and Corus Entertainment—launched a values-based programming block in September featuring shows like the Canadian hit Jacob Two-Two.

Top-rated Nickelodeon and its sister networks also promote positive messages. Most famously, Nick's annual Worldwide Day of Play has the network go dark to inspire kids to play outside. The network also partners with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to combat childhood obesity.

Still, advocacy groups like CSPI argue that Nickelodeon's efforts cannot counteract a greater number of negative images. For instance, Wootan claims that 88% of Nickelodeon's food ads are for unhealthy products. In a study conducted over a two-day period last year, she says, CSPI found 148 junk-food ads on Nickelodeon and only four public-service announcements.

Marva Smalls, executive VP of global inclusion strategy at MTV Networks, boasts that Nickelodeon's ad-supported business model allows it to funnel millions into its worthwhile social content and outreach programs.

“There's no other media company that does anything near the magnitude of what we're doing,” she says, adding that fewer than 25% of Nickelodeon's commercials are for food. “We have always lived by the mantra that what's good for kids is what's good for business.”