Don't Starve Kids TV

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Late in 2006, the British regulator Ofcom announced a ban on commercials for foods high in fat, sugar or salt during any program with substantial viewership under the age of 16. In this country, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) has asked the FCC to evaluate that law as a model for the U.S., so it's important to explore its immediate effects.

The UK independent producers' trade association, called PACT, estimates the ad restrictions will cut £39 million from children's-TV budgets in its first year (roughly three times PBS' annual spending on kids programming).

As the ad ban went into effect, ITV—one of the UK's unique “commercial public service” channels—closed its children's-production arm and slashed its free-to-air children's hours. ITV spent £35 million for children three years ago; in 2007-08, it will spend about £5 million,mostly on operations. ITV Chair Michael Grade says it's irresponsible to shareholders to transmit children's TV instead of more-profitable fare.

This isn't just a public-service issue. Specialty children's channels will take the biggest-percentage revenue hit. Worldwide, corporate advertising or underwriting is the fuel of most children's TV, and when that fuel runs scarce, carefully crafted programs suffer more than easy-to-market series with multiple revenue streams, like international sales and merchandise.

As revenues plummet, producers take innovative proposals off the table, substituting ideas that imitate financial successes or are cheap and easy to make. Ofcom research notes a sharp drop in what is now spent producing kids shows. Producers are making less programming and making it cheaper.

This is relevant to Markey's proposal to strip “educational/informational” status from programs supported by food advertising. A further-diminished financial model will only induce broadcasters to air cheaper shows.

In kids TV, “good enough” isn't. No amount of money can rescue a bad idea, but cutting corners will ruin every good one. Markey has fought for years to advance excellence in kids TV. Following Ofcom's lead could devastate the very programming he advocates.

Childhood obesity is a serious, complex issue in need of thorough and thoughtful solutions. Starving creativity and quality would be a hollow victory.

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