Among other commission moves to lighten regulation on broadcasters, a suggestion by Commissioner Michael O’Rielly to study whether the E/I rules are still necessary is being seen by some as a trial balloon. Broadcasters would welcome such a move and have offered specific suggestions. Above, Litton Entertainment’s Jack Hanna’s Wild Countdown has been an E/I staple since 2011.
To stay in the good graces of the FCC, broadcasters for the past two decades have dutifully aired three hours each week of educational children’s programming — shows like The Inspectors, Jack Hanna’s Wild Countdown and The Voyager with Josh Garcia — and adhered to other kids’ programming and advertising rules.
But they may get some relief from those obligations.
The major networks, their affiliates and the National Association of Broadcasters have been urging the agency to lighten the kidvid load since last summer in the proceeding that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai launched to eliminate outdated regulation.
And in a detailed Jan. 26 blog posting, Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly showed that he has been listening. “It is high time the commission consider whether the Kid Vid rules are still necessary,” he wrote.
In the wake of the blog blast, O’Rielly’s GOP colleagues — Pai and Brendan Carr — whose votes are critical to the launch of a review — were holding their cards close to the vest, with Carr declining comment and a spokeswoman for Pai saying he is considering the recommendations.
But a broadcast industry source close to the issue said he believed that O’Rielly’s blog had Pai’s blessing. “This is sending up the trial balloon for what could lead to a proceeding to review the FCC’s rules,” he says.
Jack Goodman, a Washington communications attorney, says the FCC can’t eliminate its kidvid rules altogether because the basic obligation is statutory.
But, he says, the agency could relax its three-hour processing guidelines, in addition to its policy restricting the ability of broadcasters to preempt children’s programming.
In addition, Goodman says the FCC could eliminate the requirement that broadcasters provide up to three hours of children’s programming on each of their multicast channels.
Goodman also says the FCC could dramatically reduce the industry’s kidvid paperwork burdens and eliminate the requirement that broadcasters publicize the location of quarterly filings.
In addition, Goodman says the FCC should be required to justify the children’s TV restrictions on First Amendment grounds. “After 20 years, the FCC needs to show that the rules actually have resulted in better educated children,” Goodman said.
Any effort to weaken the regs would likely be opposed by some Democrats and liberal watchdog groups.
They would be led by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) a long-time champion of the rules. “Families around our country, particularly in low-income areas, rely on free, over-the-air children’s programming as a way to educate their children,” he said in response to the O’Rielly post.
“I have serious concerns about the changes contemplated by Commissioner O’Rielly and how they would negatively impact kids coast-to-coast.”
The Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood and the Center for Digital Democracy also opposed the industry’s calls for deregulation in FCC filings.
“For over 40 years, the FCC has recognized that television stations have public interest obligations to limit advertising on children’s programs and to provide programs designed to educate children,” the groups say. “The proposals by industry commenters to relax the advertising limits and children’s program requirements would harm children by exposing them to excessive and unfair marketing and depriving them of quality programming.”
Added Andrew Schwartzman, a long-time public interest group advocate in Washington: “I don’t know if the proposal will go anywhere. However, I think it is fair to say that a substantial number of organizations support the rules, not to mention millions of parents.”
One of the FCC’s two Democrats — Mignon Clyburn — declined comment, while the other — Jessica Rosenworcel — had not responded to inquiries by deadline.
The FCC’s children’s TV regulations, spurred by the Children’s TV Act of 1990, essentially require broadcasters to provide three hours of regularly scheduled, weekly educational or informational programming for children 16 years of age or younger.
The three-hour obligation was extended to each of a broadcaster’s fulltime multicasting channels in 2004.
The regulations also require broadcasters to use programming that is at least 30 minutes long and airs between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. to demonstrate compliance with the three-hour “processing guideline.” In addition, the regulations require them to document their efforts quarterly in their public files.
Related regulations limit the commercial time broadcasters can include in the programming aimed at children 12 years old and younger to 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays.
But most broadcasters have side-stepped the commercial limits by targeting their programming at 13-16 year-olds, an age group not covered by the limits.
In his blog, O’Rielly echoes the industry argument that there already is plenty of quality children’s TV programming available on outlets other than commercial TV, including PBS, cable TV networks and over-the-top services such as Netflix.
“The appropriate question, therefore, is not whether children’s programming is available,” O’Rielly says in his blog. “The question that must be asked is where is the market failure to warrant the continuation of the FCC’s Kid Vid mandates?”
O’Rielly also argues that there is no evidence that the kidvid requirements have benefited children.
On the down side, he says that the regulations may preempt other “more desired or valuable” local programming, impose “costly and burdensome” paperwork requirements on broadcasters and interfere with the development and promotion of online alternatives.
“Perhaps, the commission should substitute any Kid Vid requirement for broadcasters that create or join children-centric Internet sites,” he says.
“We also should consider if there are ways we can modify our website and host selling rules to reflect the important role the Internet can play in educating children and ensure that parents have the opportunity to learn where and how they can access such sites or apps.”
Broadcasters have urged the agency to pare back on the regulatory requirements in a variety of ways.
One of the more radical industry comes from Gray Television. It urged the FCC to allow stations that provide at least three hours of local public interest programming on the weekend to “opt out” of the three-hour requirement for children’s TV altogether.
“If a station chooses the status quo and continues to air three hours of children’s programming, it can,” says Gray in an FCC filing. “If another station instead chooses to opt out and air weekend public interest programming or local news, it can. In either case, the stations choose the programming that best serves the needs of its community, not the agency.”
“Simply put, parents have a wealth of choices for quality programming aimed at meeting the educational and informational needs of children, making the three-hour per week/per broadcast stream children’s television processing guideline unnecessary in today’s media marketplace,” the station group says.
NAB, meanwhile, has urged the FCC in its own comments to revise the regulations to let broadcasters meet at least part of their children’s TV obligations by sponsoring children’s TV programming on other commercial and noncommercial stations in their markets, “and/or by special non-broadcast efforts enhancing the value of E/I programming.”
In a joint filing, CBS, Walt Disney Co., 21st Century Fox Inc. and Univision Communications asked the FCC to review rules that bar broadcasters from displaying key internet website addresses during children’s fare and limit the amount of advertising that can be included in kids TV programming.
Another popular FCC request by broadcasters — including the networks, NAB and the ABC, CBS and Fox affiliate associations — is that the FCC give broadcasters greater flexibility to meet their kidvid obligations.
“Stations should be permitted to use a range of substantive programming options (including a more creative mix of traditional, regularly scheduled programs, short-form programs, children’s specials and PSAs) and delivery mechanisms (including multicast channels, viewer-notice-and-DVR-recording, and sponsored programming on other broadcast channels) to satisfy their CTA [Children’s TV Act] E/I programming options,” the affiliates associations say in their comments.
Several broadcasters, including NAB and Nexstar, also asked the FCC to reconsider its 2004 decision extending its three-hour kids TV guideline to multicast channels.
“A core programming requirement for a station’s primary station may still make sense to provide families with a free, over-the-air alternative curated by the broadcast stations they trust,” Nexstar says.
“But requiring additional core programming on digital subchannels is unnecessary and diverts from unique niche programming provided by networks such as Bounce TV, Cozi TV, Estrella, MeTV, LATV, RTV and This TV, as well as locally-targeted news, weather and cultural channels.”