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Networks avoid legal action on kids’ programs

Pre-emption of educational programming was at issue
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

The major cable and broadcast networks reached an agreement with a coalition of child-welfare advocacy groups Thursday that could end the legal game of chicken being played over children’s digital TV regulations adopted by the Federal Communications Commission last year.

The networks had contended that the FCC acted unfairly when it approved the digital children’s TV regulations in 2004. The regulations become effective on Jan. 1, 2006.

In what may be the commission’s toughest ruling, it tightened requirements that allow broadcasters to pre-empt children’s educational TV shows that typically air on Saturdays. To qualify as core educational programming, the programming must be regularly scheduled under the current rules. The new regulation allows those programs to be pre-empted only 10% of the time.

That pre-emption limit has caused particular problems for networks carrying sports and news programming on the weekends. Live sports telecasts from the East Coast and Midwest often air early in the day because of time differences, and the networks often pre-empt viewing hours for the educational shows.

According to an outline of the agreement, there will be no specific numerical limit on the ability of broadcasters to pre-empt and reschedule children’s programming in order to bring viewers other programming of particular interest to their community, such as live sports programming from another time zone. Current requirements that pre-emptions be kept to a minimum, serve notice that a show will be pre-empted and ensure children’s educational shows that are regularly scheduled remain.

While the children’s advocacy groups had to give up on a percentage limit for pre-emptions, getting the networks to agree to voluntarily adhere to the agreement by March, even if the FCC doesn’t act, and winning other concessions made the deal attractive, said Children Now vp Patti Miller.

“We wanted to make sure the rules went into effect as quickly as possible so that kids would benefit,” Miller explained. “This is a big win for kids because they will have more options for children’s educational programming and they will be protected from excessive advertising.”

The commission still has to postpone implementation of the rules and rewrite them to conform to the agreement. If that happens, as participants in the negotiations expect, then the networks will drop their lawsuit seeking to overturn the regulations.

Web links also at issueAlso included in the rules is a requirement that three hours of educational or cultural programming air each week on broadcaster’s primary and digital multicast channels. They also limited links to commercial Web sites featured in the programming, and set limits on noneducational promotions.

Some of the rules, such as the ad limits, apply both to cable and broadcast TV and both analog as well as digital programming streams.

“The agreement achieves one of the Coalition’s central goals, that is to ensure that digital broadcasters meet their public interest obligations to children by providing them with additional educational programming,” the networks and the Children’s Media Policy Coalition said in a joint release. “The agreement leaves in place the FCC’s multicasting guideline as originally written; to meet the guideline, broadcasters must air three hours a week of children’s educational programming per channel that they air.”

As part of the agreement the TV networks said they would not challenge limits on the display of commercial Web sites during a children’s program and agreed to air three hours of children’s programming

The parties also asked the commission to modify to the prohibition against the use of children’s television characters to sell products to kids -- otherwise known as “host-selling” -- that will limit this practice to certain portions of Web sites if Web site addresses are displayed during shows that include those characters.

While the agreement allows the industry to air program promotions during children’s shows -- without those promotions themselves counting against the numerical limits on paid advertising -- the industry has agree to limit promotions for programming not appropriate for children.

The Children’s Media Policy Coalition includes: Children Now, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, the National Parent Teacher Association, Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ and Action Coalition for Media Education.

Media companies involved in this agreement are: Viacom, Inc.; The Walt Disney Co., Fox Entertainment Group Inc., NBC Universal, Time Warner Inc., 4Kids Entertainment Inc., Association of National Advertisers Inc. and Discovery Communications Inc.