July 23rd, 2009

FCC: TV Ad Content for Kids Back on the Regulatory Table

By Matthew Lasar
ars technica

FCC Chair Julius Genachowski says that he wants to revisit a tabled Commission proposal, making interactive TV ads directed at children off-limits without parental opt-in.

The chair of the Federal Communications Commission told the Senate on Wednesday that interactive ads on television that target children should not be allowed without some kind of parental consent mechanism.

“I believe that protecting kids from inappropriate commercialization remains an essential objective in the digital TV era,” Julius Genachowski said at a Senate Commerce and Science Committee hearing, while its chair Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) looked on with approval. “I’m inclined to agree that the Agency should make its tentative conclusion final and say that interactive ads directed at children are off-limits without an opt-in by parents.”

Genachowski also told the Senate that he has directed his staff to launch an inquiry into how the FCC can best “protect children and empower parents in the digital age.” The probe will “refresh the agency’s record and gather the necessary facts that will inform decisions on how best to promote, in a digital media world, the critical goals that animate the Children’s Television Act.”

Congress enacted the CTA in 1990. The law requires TV stations to broadcast educational programming for children and empowers the FCC to limit the number of commercials seen during those times.

Digital loose ends
Ever since the emergence of digital television and the introduction of Web-like interactive services on TV, regulators, broadcasters, and content providers have been quarrelling over how to expand the CTA. The FCC proposed an opt-in interactive rule 2004. It also recommended that as stations take advantage of the additional streaming capabilities that digital TV provides, they be required to offer more “core” children’s programming.

But strong disagreements between media content companies and children’s advocates delayed any final resolution of these issues, as did lawsuits filed by both sides. Finally the Commission brokered a very complicated agreement in September of 2006 that expanded core programming requirements for kids TV and set limits on reference links to commercial Web sites, but skipped the opt-in question. Now Genachowski is putting that back on the table.

The FCC is already running several inquiries and proceedings related to these questions. The agency has a report due to Congress by the end of August on the state of content filtering devices on just about every platform, from cell phones to the X-Box.

And the FCC’s proceeding on product placement revealed a strong contingent of media reform advocates who want the Commission to more strongly prohibit the practice on children’s TV. In a June 2006 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking the Commission suggested that the CTA gave it the power to do this, but left the question open. Last November a small band of advocates urged the agency to formally codify the ban. They included the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Benton Foundation, and Common Sense Media, on whose Board of Directors Genachowski has sat.

We won’t have to do that now
The new chair’s comments were clearly music to the ears of senator Rockefeller. At Genachowski’s confirmation hearing Rockefeller warned him to fix the FCC “or we’ll fix it for you.” Now he sang a different tune as well. “When I started all this I said I wanted to remake the FCC, just scrap it and start all over again,” Rockefeller said. “I don’t think we’re going to have to do that now because we have a superb chairman and commissioners.”

On the other hand, Rockefeller acknowledged that this is a very complicated problem, as kids embrace mobile phone entertainment faster than their parents. “It used to be that children reacted to us,” he pondered. “And now I think we have to be reacting to children.” Both Congress and the FCC will also have to react to a content industry that is wary of further regulation in this area, especially as video delivery technology changes at break neck speed. 

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