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Kids' programs: The fray expands

Viacom joins Disney and other industry giants in challenging FCC plan to expand programming rules to new channels.

October 07, 2005|Arshad Mohammed | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Viacom Inc. has asked a federal court to overturn new rules requiring more educational TV programs for children and setting tighter limits on kids' exposure to advertising in the age of digital television.

The suit comes a week after a group of entertainment companies, including the Walt Disney Co. and General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal Inc., asked the Federal Communications Commission to postpone the rules, which were approved last year and go into effect in January.

The government has long set guidelines for broadcasters to set aside a certain amount of educational programming for children -- currently, three hours per week -- with commercials limited to 12 minutes per hour of kids' programming on weekdays and 10.5 minutes on weekends.

But the FCC has formulated new rules to take into account the nation's move toward digital transmission of TV signals and the phaseout of analog broadcasting. Moving to digital transmission will allow stations to broadcast several channels where they could only show one before.

The new FCC rules would extend the children's programming requirements to those new channels, something the major entertainment companies are resisting.

They argue that the new channels could be useful for formats that are not conducive to kids' shows, such as weather or news channels.

The rules also would limit the amount of time broadcasters can put commercial Web addresses on the screen, which the companies think would be a handicap in a digital world where people can hop from a TV show to a website with a single click.

In addition, the rules would limit broadcasters' ability to preempt educational programming for things such as sporting events.

Viacom escalated the industry's complaints this week by asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to review the new rules.

Advocates say the rules are needed to ensure that children get some television with educational value and to protect them from commercial pitches on the Internet.

"My fear is that this will end up in court and everything gets thrown out," said Gloria Tristani, managing director of the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ Inc., a member of the Children's Media Policy Coalition that supports the rules.

"What they ultimately appear to be battling for, in the age of the transition to digital television and interactivity, is ... to have a free hand on how they advertise ... to children."

Viacom said it was only asking the court to challenge the new rules and had no plan to file suit against the old ones, which stem from the 1990 Children's Television Act.

"Viacom does not intend to challenge the entirety of the Children's Television Act. Our filing is simply seeking a review of the most recent children's television rules that the FCC adopted last year. We still hope that the FCC will reconsider these rules," Viacom spokesman Carl Folta said.

In a petition last week asking the FCC to delay the new rules for 90 days, Viacom, Disney and NBC Universal made a host of arguments, including that the rules may be unconstitutional on 1st Amendment grounds.

"They have laid the groundwork for a very broad challenge," said Georgetown University Law Center professor Angela Campbell, who is representing the Children's Media Policy Coalition on the issue. "I think that if the commission doesn't change it ... they would mount an all-out attack."

In a sign that it may be bracing for a court battle, Disney has hired Seth Waxman, a top Supreme Court lawyer, to advise it on the new FCC rules.

Asked if Disney was preparing to sue the government over the rules, Preston Padden, Disney's executive vice president for government relations, said: "I cannot comment on prospective litigation."

"The Disney company has an undisputed record of providing wholesome, family-friendly kids programming on television and on its websites. We don't think these rules are about quality programming for kids -- we're doing that. We do more of it than anybody in the world," Padden said.

The original rules have never been challenged in court, experts said, a sign that they were basically acceptable to the broadcast industry and to children's media advocates.

"If it is actually litigated, I think that would be suggestive that this formerly held truce that existed ... no longer is acceptable," said UCLA law professor Jerry Kang, speaking before Viacom filed its suit. "It could open up an interesting Pandora's box."

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