Advertising and Marketing

Warning: TV Content Controls on the Table

A new push by activist groups would allow viewers to block “objectionable” advertising material 4/24/2009 10:00:00 PM Eastern

If some kids' activists get their way, the government will require broadcast and cable networks and stations to rate advertisements—and parents will be able to block shows with product placement or integration.

That would mean content warnings on Friday Night Lights, where an Applebee's restaurant is almost a continuing character; or the Coke-filled American Idol; or the plug-heavy Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

Anything that would make it easier to skip ads or winnow out product placements would be bad news for broadcast and cable programmers. They look to branded entertainment as a way to chase the ever-more-elusive ad dollar through the cratered economic landscape.

The FCC is required to report to Congress by Aug. 29 on the current state of content-control technologies for broadcasting, cable and the Internet. In seeking comment, the FCC raised a number of issues, including whether ads should be rated.

That troubles Dan Jaffe of the Association of National Advertisers. “The [Children's Media Policy] Coalition and other consumerist spokesmen are making sweeping proposals that could affect a wide range of ads that provide the foundation for TV broadcasting,” Jaffe tells B&C.

In comments filed earlier this month with the commission, the CMPC, which comprises groups including Children Now, United Church of Christ and the American Psychological Association, called for ratings on “inappropriate TV commercials” and embedded advertising. The coalition said that the V-chip ratings system's inability to block ads is a serious flaw that should be rectified by adding content descriptors that identify shows with product placements or integration.

Adonis Hoffman, senior VP and counsel for the American Association of Advertising Agencies, says he understands the intent of Congress and the FCC to “reinforce” the ability of parents to prevent kids from watching objectionable content, a message he says “is not lost on advertisers.” But he also points out that advertising “remains the singular financial basis for free, over-the-air broadcast television,” something else that is not lost on the industry.

According to Hoffman, the current blocking technologies are already “quite effective,” as are self-regulatory efforts such as those of the Council of Better Business Bureaus' Children's Advertising Review Unit.

The FCC has been instructed by Congress to produce the report, but it is under no mandate to adopt new rules. So, is there any reason to worry?

Yes, Jaffe says. Some groups “are not only calling for rating and blocking sexual or violent content but certain prescription drug ads, alcohol ads, programs with product placements and potentially other categories they don't think are appropriate for kids. We believe these proposals are misguided, counterproductive, will undermine the health of the media and, because they are content-based restrictions, if imposed by the FCC are almost certainly unconstitutional.”

There could well be interest both on the Hill and at the FCC in content-control technology. Sen. Jay Rockfeller (D-W.Va.) has pushed to give the FCC more control over TV content, including adding violence regulation to its powers.

“I have heard that there is lots of buzz on the Hill about creating bills from several different places that address the issue of children's inappropriate exposure to commercial content,” says Jeff McIntyre, director of national policy for Children Now. “Certainly, I think the FCC is primed to have the regulatory authority to address this.”

Genachowski knows content control

Presumptive FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is well versed in the content-control issue. He is a founding board member of Common Sense Media, whose mission is to provide age-appropriate reviews of media content to help viewers control their kids' media intake. And the NCTA noted in its comments to the FCC that top cable operators Comcast, Time Warner and Cox use Common Sense information—including, in Comcast's case, for both VOD and online content.

But the good news for media companies is Common Sense favors giving parents, not government, control over content. “We don't assume that Genachowski or the other regulators at the FCC will have a knee-jerk response to the Children's Media Policy Coalition's policy pronouncements,” Jaffe says.

Hoffman agrees: “As we prepare for the Genachowski-led FCC, I would expect regulatory policy to reflect a real-world reality where policy concerns are balanced prudently with business realities.”

McIntyre says he is looking for action out of either Congress or the FCC: “I certainly hope that the issuance of an NOI [Notice of Inquiry] from a federal agency isn't just another meaningless use of tax dollars, that we just don't turn our federal agencies into think tanks.”

Lisa Ackerman, spokesperson for Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who sponsored the bill directing the FCC to conduct the study, said he would wait and see what the FCC's report said before deciding how to proceed.

E-mail comments to jeggerton@reedbusiness.com

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