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FCC Mulls Digitizing Kids Rule

Aug 30, 2004  •  Post A Comment

To the amazement of some industry officials, the Federal Communications Commission is considering a radical proposal that could require broadcasters that multicast on their digital channels to provide 15 hours or more of educational programming for children every week.

Under existing agency rules, broadcasters are required to offer only three hours of educational programming per week for children on their analog channels. When broadcasters switch to digital channels, they will be able to offer up to six programming streams on the same bandwidth now used to offer one analog channel of programming.

Watchdog groups have argued for beefing up the broadcasting industry’s children’s TV obligation commensurately as broadcasters switch to digital to ensure that kids programming stays in the same proportion to the total amount of programming offered on all of their digital streams.

An agency spokesman last week confirmed that Michael Powell, the Republican chairman of the FCC, is amenable to signing off on the watchdog groups’ argument. An FCC vote to decide the new regulations has been slated for Sept. 9. “We’re completely flexible,” a spokesman for Mr. Powell said.

The radically beefed-up obligation being debated at the FCC last week essentially would require broadcasters to provide three hours of children’s TV programming per week for each 24-hour programming stream they offer on their digital channel.

That means that broadcasters who offer five multicast streams could be obliged to offer 15 hours of children’s programming each week. Broadcasters who offer six multicast streams would be liable for 18 hours.

An agency source said that under the FCC proposals, broadcasters could meet their obligations by providing of the children’s fare on one or more programming stream. In other words, some of a broadcaster’s digital programming streams could be devoted exclusively to news, weather or other sorts of general programming, as long as the remaining streams carried enough children’s fare to meet the overall burden.

The fact that Mr. Powell was open to a substantial hike in the programming cap came as a surprise to some observers, because the original proposal by the agency’s Media Bureau would have capped the broadcaster’s children’s programming obligation for their digital streams at a total of six hours per week, no matter how many streams they offered.

But when word of the bureau’s proposal leaked early last week, it came under heated attack by children’s TV advocates. “We’re less than overwhelmed,” said Patti Miller, managing director of Children Now. “The FCC has a long history of very modest efforts to support children’s needs, and from what we’re hearing about this draft, it appears the FCC is in step with history.”

“Every member of the [children’s advocacy] coalition will be working very hard to make [the children’s proceeding] something that’s really good for children and not just crumbs,” added Gloria Tristani, a former Democratic FCC commissioner who is now managing director of the watchdog Office of Communications, United Church of Christ.

Move to Bar Web Tie-Ins

The National Association of Broadcasters had no comment on the FCC’s proposals. Industry sources, however, argued that a beefed-up obligation would be unfair because cable and satellite TV face no children’s TV requirements.

Some industry sources also warned that an enhanced obligation could undermine incentives to develop new programming networks for the broadcast digital multicast channels, derailing what could prove to be a new source of multichannel competition for cable and satellite.

Said one broadcast industry source: “Let me get this straight. If you develop a new program service and charge the American people to see it on a cable or satellite channel, you’re fine. But if you try to give the same service away for free as a broadcast multicast service, then the government hits you with a three-hour children’s obligation? It sounds to me as if they have the incentives exactly backwards.”

Late last week, however, a spokesman for Mr. Powell said the agency chairman would be “happy to go higher” than the six hours recommended by the bureau. Indeed, the spokesman said the chairman might agree to raise the cap as high as the three hours per week per 24-hour multicast stream that kids programming advocates have requested, depending on the druthers of a majority of his fellow commissioners.

“We’re open,” the spokesman said.

Three of the FCC’s five commissioners-Republican Kathleen Abernathy and Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein-have already said that they want the agency to be aggressive on children’s TV issues.

Children’s TV advocates have also been lobbying the FCC to include a provision in the new rules that would bar broadcasters from including tie-ins to commercial Web sites in their children’s programming. But an FCC source said it was unclear whether the agency had legal standing to grant the wish.

The question about whether to beef up the children’s TV requirements for digital broadcasting has been pending at the FCC for almost four years, when it was spun out of an inquiry package looking into whether the agency should beef up all of the public-interest responsibilities of broadcasters as they switch to digital transmission technology.

Another important part of the original package, expected to be voted on within the next several weeks, is supposed to dictate how broadcasters disclose what they have been doing to serve the public interest on the their stations. It is supposed to include a determination as to whether they will be required to make the disclosures on their station Web sites.

Still another important part of the package-which also is expected to be acted on soon-are proposed rules considering what other public-interest obligations broadcasters should take on, including regulations governing their political broadcast obligations.