Kids Regs Draw Big 3 Fire

Oct 3, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The owners of the Big 3 TV networks have told the Federal Communications Commission and watchdog group representatives they will sue to overturn the agency’s new children’s TV rules unless the FCC dramatically eases the new regulations.

“It’s clear that [the Big 3 TV networks] are laying the groundwork for a legal challenge if the FCC doesn’t back down significantly, and they’ve told us that and they’ve told the commission that,” said Angela Campbell, an attorney for a coalition of advocacy groups for children.

The new regulations, adopted by the agency late last year and set to go into effect in January, are chiefly aimed at enhancing children’s TV obligations as the broadcast industry shifts from analog to digital transmission technology. Existing rules require broadcasters to air three hours of educational and informational programming for children each week. In addition, the rules limit ads on children’s TV shows-both on broadcasting and on cable-to 10½ minutes per hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays.

A long-standing regulation also bars broadcasters and cable TV operators from using the hosts of children shows to pitch products on their programs.

The new regulations, which would apply to both analog and digital broadcasts, require broadcasters that multicast on their digital channels to provide additional children’s TV programming on their schedules, roughly in proportion to the additional programming they provide overall. Further, the new rules would require broadcasters and cable TV operators to count most promotional announcements, including those for Web site addresses within children’s shows, toward the commercial limits.

Another provision would ban display of the addresses of Web sites that use a character from the program to pitch products and services. Still another proposed regulation would bar broadcasters from counting toward their programming quotas children’s TV shows they pre-empt more than 10 percent of time.

The networks are particularly concerned because the agency’s proposals on Web site addresses could put a severe damper on their ability to attract children to their sites, where FCC children’s TV regulations, including the one prohibiting selling or pitching by hosts, don’t apply. Web site advertising is expected to offer the networks a major growth opportunity as interactive TV technology gains acceptance.

“Where the heck does the FCC get the authority to regulate anything on the Internet?” said an industry source.

In response, Ms. Campbell said, “The FCC’s not regulating the Internet; they’re regulating what’s on the TV screen.”

Network officials are also concerned that the 10 percent limit on pre-emptions will limit the ability of West Coast affiliates to air live network sports programming on weekends.

“[The FCC] went way, way overboard,” said an industry source.

As one measure of their earnestness, the network owners-The Walt Disney Co., Viacom and NBC Universal-made a joint filing at the FCC last week that lays out arguments on why the new regulations are vulnerable to court challenge on First Amendment and other grounds.

Of particular interest to Washington insiders is that Disney’s lead counsel on the filing is Seth Waxman, a Clinton administration solicitor general at the Department of Justice who now specializes in arguing cases before the Supreme Court.

“You don’t hire somebody like that unless you want to go to the Supreme Court,” Ms. Campbell said.

The filing also asks the FCC to postpone the effective date for the rules until 90 days after the agency officially rules on more than a dozen pending industry petitions seeking revisions in the regulations. Absent FCC relief, the new rules are slated to go into effect Jan. 1 next year.

“We, along with Viacom and NBC, are simply asking that before the FCC implements any new rules it should consider and rule on our pending petitions for reconsideration,” said an ABC spokeswoman.

An industry official said the networks have been trying to negotiate compromise rules with watchdog group representatives, but discussions have broken off.

In a related move, the watchdog Office of Communication for the United Church of Christ last week filed suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati seeking a complete FCC ban on interactive advertising on children’s TV.