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FCC to fine Univision $24 million

The proposed penalty is for airing children's soap operas in a bid to fulfill a quota for educational programming.

February 25, 2007|Jim Puzzanghera | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A record $24-million fine looming against Univision Communications Inc. for airing children's soap operas to comply with a federal educational programming requirement may open a new front in the battle between regulators and broadcasters over what is televised on the public airwaves.

Advocates for more child-friendly programs praised the fine, hoping it would send a strong message about the importance of a law they said many broadcasters half-heartedly tried to obey.

But broadcasters worry that the Federal Communications Commission is preparing to hand down major fines for violating what they say is a vague requirement that may be outdated in an era of specialty children's channels such as Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel.

"This is humongous," said one broadcast executive who did not want to be named for fear of antagonizing the commission. "It's the size of the fine and it's the willingness to go after content that is really scary."

Los Angeles-based Univision, the country's largest Spanish-language broadcaster, has agreed to the fine to settle complaints against 24 stations over a 116-week period from 2004 to 2006 for airing the children-focused soap operas, known as telenovelas, to fulfill the requirement for at least three hours of educational programming a week, according to a commission official who spoke on condition of anonymity because only the FCC staff, not the full commission, had approved the settlement.

The fine, first reported by the New York Times, would clear the way for Univision's TV station licenses to be transferred as part of a $12.3-billion sale of the network to a consortium of private investors that includes Los Angeles billionaire Haim Saban. A Univision spokeswoman declined to comment Saturday.

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin supports the fine, which is expected to be approved soon by a majority of the five-member commission. It would be the FCC's largest ever, topping a $9-million penalty against Qwest Communications International Inc. in 2004 for violating rules regarding telephone interconnections.

"I generally believe consumers benefit from less regulation, not more," Martin said in a statement Saturday. "However, I take broadcasters' responsibilities to serve the public very seriously, especially regarding children's programming."

The Univision fine does not signal a renewed emphasis on educational programming rules, just a continued push by Martin, a Republican, on a variety of family issues, the FCC official said.

Although Martin, like many Bush administration officials, favors a light regulatory hand, he has taken an aggressive approach on issues affecting children. He has led a crackdown on indecent programming, is considering ways the agency might be able to address excessively violent television shows and has pushed cable companies to allow viewers to purchase channels individually to avoid racy fare such as "The Sopranos."

The $24-million fine is less than a third of what Univision is liable for under the law. With a maximum penalty of $32,500 for each station for each week per violation of the children's TV programming rule, Univision could have been hit with a fine as high as $90.48 million.

But the record penalty was a positive sign to Susan Linn, a co-founder of Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.

"There is still no definition of what educational means, and the FCC has decided to be very loose about that ... and broadcasters can sort of skate by," she said, noting that broadcasters had tried to call "The Jetsons" and other cartoons educational until the FCC tightened requirements in 1996, establishing the three-hour-a-week quota of shows aimed at youngsters 16 and under that served their "intellectual, cognitive, social and emotional needs."

A 2000 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that 23% of programs aired to meet the requirement were "minimally educational."

The complaint against Univision was filed in 2005 by the United Church of Christ.

Among the soap operas the group complained about was "Complices al Rescate" (Friends to the Rescue), which revolves around the adventures of twin girls separated at birth.

"Complices al Rescate" is about suspense, intrigue and love, not education or information," Veronica Kramer, one of the church's complainants and a Cleveland mother, said when the church announced its complaint.

The FCC's staff agreed with the complaint, finding the soap opera was "more akin to telenovelas than 'Sesame Street,' " the commission official said.

jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com

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