Congress, FCC Consider New Rules for Ads Aimed at Kids

Published November 1, 2009

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) says it’s time to revisit laws regarding children’s television programming to reflect modern technological changes and get rid of “inappropriate” content.

Rockefeller also warned in a committee hearing this summer about the impact of TV content, such as violence and sexuality, on children.

FCC Enters Debate

Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission announced it will open an inquiry examining the various technologies on the market that block children from watching programs with sex and violence.

“Parents must have access to control technologies that can appropriately limit their children’s exposure to unsuitable material,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told Rockefeller’s committee while releasing an agency report on August 31 detailing the technologies available to parents.

The report noted no single parental control technology works across all media platforms, such as broadcast, cable, and satellite television; wireless services; and the Internet.

Revising Current Law

Rockefeller and the FCC are looking to revise the 1990 Children’s Television Act, which requires broadcasters to air at least three hours per week of educational and informational programming. Reducing the commercialization of children’s programming was one of the goals of the act.

In 1996 it was revised with new rules including the adoption of public information initiatives to give parents more information about educational programs aired by TV stations.

Empowering Parents

Jeff McIntyre, director for national policy at the Oakland, California-based advocacy group Children Now, says while the Children’s Television Act regulates ads to children in an analog environment, the digital age—where all sorts of media can be consumed on the relatively regulation-free Internet—presents unique challenges.

Advocates of stricter government control over online content say regulations should require Internet service providers to keep ads away from children unless parents “opt in.” McIntyre said this could work for “some parents, possibly.”

But McIntyre says regulation should require Web content to default with no ads so “parents [can] monitor the individual types of advertisements their children see based on what they know to be best for their own children.

“Children do not have the developmental capacity to distinguish persuasive intent until the age of seven or eight,” McIntyre said. “That decision is best left to the parent. It is the goal of every parent to be empowered to make healthy decisions for their children in every environment. The best protections for children combine broad industry practice and healthy parental responsibility.”

Ads Pay the Freight

This issue is similar to the way TV ads are regulated, because the economics are the same. Advertising pays for free TV broadcasts, and ads pay for freely consumed online content, but the ads online are becoming more focused and interactive.

Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital in Boston, explains the dilemma.

“Either we go to a paid subscription or pay-per-view system, or government subsidizes programming as they do in Europe, or shows are sponsored by consumer product companies whose products are featured in the show—such as in Extreme Home Makeover [on ABC-TV],” Rich said. “Take away those options, and the quality and quantity of programming will necessarily drop.”

All on the Parents

“We have to resolve how TV [and Web-streamed] programming will be paid for,” Rich said. “An opt-out rule will work as well as the V-chip has,” which he says has been ineffective.

“The vast majority of parents are not even aware that there is a V-chip in their television,” Rich said. “Even fewer know how to program it, and a vanishingly small number actually do. Remember, these are the same people whose VCR clock flashed 12:00 for the machine’s entire usable life. I anticipate that virtually no one will go to the trouble to opt out.”

McIntyre, too, concedes regulation should recognize the economics of the situation. “There are several different economic models that all media currently prosper under. Broad protections have been in place that have helped steer the media marketplace to be a healthier place for children,” he said.

Tabassum Rahmani ([email protected]) writes from Dublin, California.