Regulators Turn Up Heat on TV Content

May 28, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Call it the summer of broadcasters’ discontent, but Washington’s swampy weather this year could be especially hot for media companies. Promising to raise the temperature are hearings and meetings debating new limits on TV advertising that targets kids; TV violence; and direct-to-consumer drug advertising.
In quick succession, legislative concerns that in some cases have percolated for years are turning into imminent regulatory or legislative threats. Congressional hearings on new limits on TV violence are expected in late June; discussion of curbs on TV food ads will take place in several July forums; and legislation that could affect TV drug ads is slated for House action by July 4.
The extent of any limits enacted and how much they impact companies’ bottom lines hangs in the balance. Ad changes alone could affect billions of dollars in spending, while limiting violence has the potential to put a chill on broadcasters trying to compete with cable TV’s racier content.
The daunting regulatory prospects for the media industry were driven home in the last two weeks via two actions.
First, in letters to Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., head of the House Energy & Commerce Committee’s telecom panel, three of the five members of the Federal Communications Commission suggested new curbs on TV food ads.
There were some indications last week that marketers could be ready to offer concessions to hold off regulation. Those compromises are more likely to deal with changes in the types of products promoted than in overall ad spending. It remains to be seen if media companies would be willing to accede to consumer groups’ requests that they impose nutritional content standards for food and fast-food ads in kids’ shows.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate said in a letter that they’re still hopeful an ad hoc obesity task force they created with two senators will prompt food and media companies to adopt additional voluntary limits. That group’s report is due July 11.
Still, “Some additional restrictions on the type of advertising that airs during children’s programming may be necessary absent sufficient industry guidelines,” Mr. Martin and Ms. Tate said in the letter.
In a separate letter, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said he supported the FCC looking into the issue.
In the other regulatory cloud on the media horizon, the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the Motion Picture Association of America hired Harvard University professor Laurence Tribe, one of the nation’s preeminent First Amendment specialists, to fend off attempts to impose limits on violence.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has proposed legislation that would give the FCC the authority to regulate violence on TV and cable much as it does indecency. The pressure for legislation was bolstered by an FCC report in April saying excessively violent TV is hurting kids and content ratings and calling the V-chip “insufficient” or “ineffective.”
The report urged Congress to take “action” to regulate violent programming, but kicked to Congress any decision on what action and what’s violent.


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