Child Advocates, TV Come to Terms

By Arshad Mohammed
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 16, 2005

Entertainment companies have agreed to show more educational programming and to limit their use of characters such as SpongeBob SquarePants in online marketing to children as part of deal with advocacy groups on new rules for digital TV.

Separately, Time Warner Cable announced it will offer a $12.99 per month "family choice" package of 15 channels, including Discovery Kids, Toon Disney and C-SPAN 2, to try to give parents more control over what their children watch.

Both the new cable offering and the agreement are designed to ensure that more programming appropriate for children is available in an age of proliferating sex, violence and coarse language on television.

Entertainment companies and advocacy groups asked the Federal Communications Commission to approve their agreement, which is intended to resolve a dispute over federal rules on children's educational programming in the digital age that are due to take effect Jan. 1.

If the FCC changes its rules in line with the agreement, the two sides would drop legal challenges to the rules and avoid a courtroom showdown that could be risky and expensive for both sides.

FCC spokesman David H. Fiske declined to comment on what the FCC may do about the rules, which it adopted last year to try to ensure that digital channels carry educational programming.

All TV programming is gradually switching to digital technology, which allows broadcasters and cable TV companies to squeeze as many as six channels into the bandwidth once used for a single, traditional analog channel.

The deal leaves untouched an FCC rule that the companies must provide at least three hours of educational programming per week for each new digital channel they offer.

Under the agreement, cable companies and broadcasters will limit their use of characters such as SpongeBob to market to children on Web sites whose addresses are on screen while the show is on.

This is designed to mirror a long-standing rule for traditional television that bars a character such as Mickey Mouse from appearing in ads to sell products while his own show is on the air.

Advocacy groups oppose the practice, known as host-selling, because they think kids are unduly susceptible to sales pitches from characters they love and cannot tell the difference between commercials and regular programming.

The agreement would, however, allow the display of addresses with links to third-party Web sites or to sites that display characters from many shows. Still, children's advocates said the limits are a start.

"These rules represent a significant first step in ensuring children are protected from excessive advertising in the digital age," said Patti Miller, vice president of Children Now, a member of the Children's Media Policy Coalition, which negotiated the deal.

"We're pleased to have come to a mutually satisfactory agreement with the children's advocacy groups," the Walt Disney Co. said in a statement. "The rules, as modified, allow us to continue to provide high quality programming for children and families without undue restrictions on our ability to serve other viewers as well."

The entertainment companies secured a series of victories in the agreement.

The deal would eliminate a rule that would explicitly limit how often broadcasters could pre-empt children's programs. This was vital to broadcasters, who said otherwise they would often be unable to show sporting events on the West Coast.

The companies also won flexibility to promote children's shows during educational programs, but they agreed to limit promotions for shows not suited to children.

The companies involved in the agreement include Viacom Inc., the Walt Disney Co., Fox Entertainment Group Inc., General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal Inc., Time Warner Inc., 4Kids Entertainment Inc., Association of National Advertisers Inc. and Discovery Communications Inc.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company