Law & Courts

FCC Rule Boosts Education on Digital TV

By Andrew Trotter — January 10, 2006 4 min read
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A recent accord between the television industry and children’s advocacy groups over federal rules promises to ease the transition of TV programming for children into the era of digital broadcasting.

Until last month, the two sides had been in dispute over the industry’s obligation to provide expanded educational and informational fare for children younger than 16. Congress mandated those obligations in general terms in the Children’s Television Act of 1990 but left many important details to be worked out by the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC has issued several sets of rules that have made the broadcaster’s obligation’s increasingly precise, such as an order in 1996 that said that TV stations, to renew their broadcast licenses, must broadcast a minimum of three hours of children’s educational and informational programming at popular times every week, among other requirements.

In September 2004, the FCC issued rules, to take effect at the start of 2006, to beef up the requirements for stations that broadcast in a digital rather than traditional analog format.

Put simply, digital television encodes the information that makes up a TV picture in the ones and zeros of computers, while analog television turns picture information into a radio signal with varying frequencies.

As they adopt digital technology, broadcasters are able to use a technique known as multicasting, in which multiple programs can be beamed over a tiny ribbon of the broadcast spectrum that formerly could carry only a single analog broadcast. The digital streams can include Web-based content and other services, as well as conventional television shows.

Under current law, all of the nation’s 1,700 TV stations must shift to digital transmission by 2009; already, about 1,300 local stations have both analog and digital broadcasts.

The FCC rules on multicasting, which were to go into effect Jan. 1, require that broadcast licensees add another three hours of children’s educational or informational shows per week for each additional 24-hour multicast channel.

The rules also put strict limits on commercial messages during educational programs and barred the use of animated characters to sell products to children.

Both broadcasters and children’s advocacy groups have filed lawsuits that threatened to bog down the rules in the federal courts, by challenging whether the FCC has properly fulfilled its obligations under the act.

Most galling to the television industry, the new rules would bar TV stations from pre-empting more than 10 percent of their children’s programs. Under the rule currently in effect, the stations have considerable flexibility to pre-empt that schedule for other shows, typically weekend broadcasts of sports.

In a breakthrough, however, the recent agreement compromises on some key issues, while putting the lawsuits on hold.

A Template for Revisions

By potentially ending the lawsuits and giving the FCC a template for revising its rules in a way both sides will accept, the December agreement “will serve children very well,” said Gloria Tristani, a former FCC commissioner and one of the negotiators for the Children’s Media Policy Coalition, which includes various medical and child-advocacy groups, including the National PTA.

The industry agreed to accept the same requirements for educational and informational programming for each additional channel that is created using multicasting techniques. The children’s advocates agreed to accept the use of characters to sell products to children on certain Web sites, with Web addresses displayed on shows that include those characters.

“There will be protections for children against excessive advertisements—not perfect protections, but you always may give up something when you reach an agreement,” said Ms. Tristani, who was a Democratic member of the FCC from 1997 to 2001 who is now the managing director of the Washington-based communications office of the United Church of Christ.

The accord also gives the television industry a boon by not placing limits on the pre-emption of the children’s programming. “That was absolutely key,” said Shannon Jacobs, a spokeswoman for CBS, a division of Viacom Inc. “Given the amount of sports we had on Saturday morning, that was really important for us—we were happy to be able to get that flexibility back.”

But the FCC must still accept the deal. In its Dec. 16 order, the commission said it would delay the new rules until March 1, giving it time to seek public comment on the parties’ recommendation and make its own determination on proposed changes to the rules.

“[W]e greatly appreciate a joint recommendation from these previously adverse interests and will give their recommendation serious consideration,” the commission’s statement said.

Even if the FCC does not revise the rules by March 1, the agreement between broadcasters and children’s advocates requires that the TV industry comply with the terms of the accord by then.

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