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Food Marketing Dominates Hill Hearing

6/22/2007 07:25:00 AM Eastern

While TV and film images of smoking and violence also were on the menu, it was food marketing that dominated a Friday Hill hearing on the effects of media on kids.

A tsunami of high-fructose corn syrup was drowning out PSA’s about healthy eating, suggested some members of the House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee. Those PSA’s, said Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), are like “an umbrella in the London blitz.”

Media companies, advertisers, food companies and some government officials are working on self-regulatory guidelines, and food marketers have already pledged to change the balance of advertising of snack vs. healthy foods, but House Telecommunications & Internet Chairman Ed Markey has been turning turn up the heat on the issue.

Behind the push is the very real, and several witnesses said frightening, issue of childhood obesity, with threatens to produce a generation whose life span is shorter than their parents.

Markey, who has said before and said again Friday that he wanted the FCC to step in if government-industry task force didn’t do enough to rein in food advertising to kids, led a parade of House members and several witnesses taking aim at the media and marketers.

Doctor Donald Shifrin of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that a few PSA’s up against 40,000 commercials per year was not a level playing field, and that kids were being overwhelmed by junk food ads.

Mary Sophos, a top lobbyist for the grocery industry, pointed out that 11 major food companies have pledged to balance their messages with ones for more nutritional products, including 10,000 new or reformulated items, and to work in more themes about exercise. But Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) asked how showing someone eating french fries then riding a bike was helping, suggested that was a mixed message.

Both Shifrin and Patti Miller from Children Now suggested that any advertising targeted to kids under eight tis inherently deceptive, thus illegal, because children that young to not have the cognitive ability to distinguish between ads and programming. they also both suggested that, as Shifrin put it that TV, movies, video games and computers had displaced parents and teachers as primary role models and filters of information for kids.

Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) said the argument that sex and violence on TV did not adversely impact kids did not pass the common sense test, then suggested one answer to giving parents more control would be reforming the retransmission consent regime so there was less bundling of channels. Deal has been pushing that issue on various fronts.

National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow, who was a witness at the hearing, said that the broadcast carriage rules did make it so that cable companies had to bundle the TV stations in with cable networks, though he said he liked those bundles.

Deal asked whether cable was providing a family tier of service to parents who might want to restrict the channels to those carrying programming with no more than a TV PG rating. McSlarrow said that he thought that would not be possible since even cable operators currently offering family tiers with programming like Hallmark or Disney Channel were required by the carriage rules to carry broadcast stations with TV 14-rated programming.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) came to the defense of both broadcasting and cable.

Upton made a push for personal responsibility, saying “kids get fat by what they eat, not what they see.” Parents, he said, must be the masters of the clicker.

Upton also said he thought broadcast TV had cleaned up its act. Saying that since his bill increasing FCC indecency fines went into effect last year, “the race to the bottom has ended, saying broadcasters had “gotten the message” and were "thinking twice about pushing the envelope.”

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