Children's television networks owned by Viacom and Disney have agreed to pony up $1 million and $500,000, respectively, to end Federal Communications Commission investigations into whether they violated the agency's rules on advertising in children's programming.
It's the largest FCC fine for violating restrictions on advertising to kids on TV.
In fact, the price tags to settle the charges against Nickelodeon and ABC Family networks are nearly identical to the indecency fines the FCC recently slapped on broadcast networks CBS and Fox. In September, the FCC fined CBS-owned stations $550,000 over the broadcasting of Janet Jackson's breast, and this month the commission nailed Fox stations with a whopping $1.2 million fine for airing a bachelor party on the reality series "Married by America" that included pixelated stripper breasts and butts and spanking.
But though the fines are similar in dollar value, yesterday's FCC story did not involve women's breasts in any way, shape or form. So you probably will not see this story covered breathlessly on "Entertainment Tonight" or the front page of any major metropolitan newspaper.
The advertising violations were discovered in routine audits of cable system operators, an FCC spokesman explained to The TV Column.
Federal regulations stipulate that children's programming may contain no more than 101/2 minutes of advertising per hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays.
Viacom acknowledges that Nickelodeon violated that regulation nearly 600 times over approximately 10 months, representing the equivalent of 1,021 extra 30-second ads. As part of its settlement, Viacom agreed to reduce Nickelodeon's ad inventory by the same 1,021 30-second spots over the next 10 months.
FCC regulations also prohibit a network from running ads for products associated with the programming being aired. (In other words, you can't run a commercial for a SpongeBob SquarePants doll or video during a telecast of "SpongeBob SquarePants.") Viacom reported that by its own estimate, during the same inquiry period it violated that rule about 145 times.
Yesterday Nickelodeon said in a statement that it was "extremely upset" to discover that it had exceeded its allotted commercial time and blamed "human errors and computer system problems that occurred in our commercial logging systems."
The kids network said it had not intentionally violated the FCC rules. Nickelodeon apologized for the mistake but noted that the "vast majority" of hours of programming examined came in well under the FCC advertising cap.
ABC Family says it unintentionally placed ads for associated products in programming during 31 half-hour telecasts from July 2003 to July '04.
An ABC Family spokeswoman said in a statement that the error was the result of a computer traffic system "that did not read for notations regarding special children's advertising restrictions."
"We derived no economic benefit from the error, as these commercials were never sold for placement in related shows," she added.
"Today, the commission's Enforcement Bureau resolves major investigations regarding our children's programming rules," FCC Chairman Michael Powell said yesterday in a statement. He noted that Nickelodeon and ABC Family are "hugely popular with children" and are carried on almost all cable systems nationwide, reaching more than 85 million households.
"The consent decrees entered into today will not only help protect children who watch these cable channels, but will have a much broader impact," he forecast.
"All cable operators, DBS providers, commercial television broadcasters and companies that provide children's programming should know that we will vigorously enforce our children's advertising limits. We will continue to take swift and appropriate enforcement action to protect the interests of children."
Don't you just love election years?
Nickelodeon may get the last laugh, however. The network's Web site reports that 57 percent of the 400,000 kids it polled want Sen. John Kerry to be the next president; 43 percent prefer GOP incumbent George W. Bush. Nickelodeon has been conducting this presidential poll every election year since 1988; so far it's batted a thousand.
And, speaking of batting: More than 31 million people sat glued to the Boston Red Sox's historic rout of the New York Yankees in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series on Wednesday night.
It was the most-watched league championship series game since 1988, when 31.8 million people watched the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the New York Mets in Game 7. Wednesday's broadcast was also the most-watched baseball game since 2001, when 39.1 million caught the Arizona Diamondbacks as they nailed Game 7 of the World Series to beat the Yankees.
WB's "Commando Nanny" is the winner of this season's Dead Before It Debuts Pool.
The network has scrubbed plans to air the sitcom that last May it announced would get the Friday 8:30 p.m. time slot, hammocked between returning "What I Like About You" and "Reba."
"Commando Nanny" had been plagued with problems from the get-go.
First and foremost, the series was a sitcom about a British commando who comes to the States and becomes a nanny to three kids in Beverly Hills. This highly dubious premise was supposed to have been based on the experiences of reality TV producer Mark Burnett, who, in a time-honored Hollywood tradition, decided to inflict on the viewing public a show about himself, starring someone much better-looking.
A pilot was shot. First among the cast to lose her job was Kristin Bauer, who played the wife of the millionaire businessman who hired this commando with no experience and no references to look after his kids. Show runner Rachel Sweet told critics at Summer TV Press Tour 2004 that the wife character had been rewritten.
Next to bite the dust was lead Philip Winchester, who had made quite an impression during the press Q&A session with his proper British accent although he isn't a Brit at all; he's from Bozeman, Mont.
The following month, WB announced that Winchester had broken his foot, and to make the show's Sept. 17 start date it would have to recast him -- but not before Winchester had given an interview to the British press saying Burnett had helped him get on "solid footing" for the role.
Some critics muttered that he'd deliberately broken his foot to avoid appearing on the new show.
Even before Winchester's accident, Warner Bros. had planned to reshoot the pilot. Owain Yeoman, a bona fide Brit, was hired to replace him.
Later that month, Gerald McRaney, who plays the millionaire businessman who hires the commando with no experience and no references to look after his three children, learned he would need surgery for a malignant lung tumor. Interestingly, WB did not announce it was going to recast McRaney's role to make the debut date. Instead, it announced it would shut down production while he recovered and that all bets were off on the Sept. 17 launch.
Early this month, a new pilot episode was shot. Less than a week later, WB announced that show-runner Sweet was leaving and that production would be shut down until a replacement was found.