As expected, the Federal Communications Commission Thursday unanimously proposed that broadcasters be required to carry three hours of children's programming on their primary digital channel, as well as another three hours for every free digital multicast channel they decide to program.
Broadcasters must currently program at least three hours of educational kids programming per week on their analog channels.
Those kids programs can be aggregated on a single channel so long as it receives the same cable or satellite distribution as the primary channel and at least three hours remain on the primary channel, the FCC said.
The shows must run regularly and may not be preempted more than 10% of the time. Moving a show to a multicast channel will not be considered preemption so long as viewers are sufficiently informed of the move and the new location.
The new obligations kick in in a year.
The FCC has also decided that any show promo during those three hours that is not for another educational kids program counts toward commercial limits in that programming, which will be 10 and a half minutes on weekends and 12 minutes on weekdays, the same as the current requirement for analog kids programming.
The FCC also said that broadcast programmers won't be able to circumvent ad limits through on-screen promotion of links to Web sites. Such links, said the FCC, will have to be to sites with primarily educational content, otherwise they will be considered advertising material and will be off limits unless contained in a separate commercial with so-called bumper material that clearly separates it from the program content.
The commission also ruled that analog and digital stations must run an E/I (educational/informational) identifier continuously throughout their educational kids shows.
Several commissioners, including FCC Chairman Michael Powell, said that children's activist input was instrumental in their decision to expand broadcasters children's programming obligations.
At least one of those activists was not resting on his laurels. "The FCC has advanced the interests of children through its decision today to implement new rules for broadcasters that will ensure more quality children's programming on broadcasters' new digital channels," said the Center for Digital Democracy's Jeff Chester, "But these reforms cannot end with proposals benefiting children. Chairman Powell and the FCC now must move to ensure that broadcasters also serve the interests of the nation's citizens, by airing public affairs and electoral coverage that enables viewers to participate in their democracy."
The FCC chose not to address the issue of interactive links in kids programming, saying they were not yet a part of the kids TV landscape, though it recognized it could become an issue in the future.
That was not good enough for activist group Children Now, which said, "While we are gratified by much of today's ruling, we remain concerned about protecting children from the potential harms of interactive advertising.... Although the FCC has adopted a stance that recognizes the need to protect children from interactive advertising, we are disappointed that it did not actually ban the practice.
An unhappy NAB said the decision was putting the cart before the multicast must-carry horse.
"NAB recognizes that providing children's educational programming is one of many ways that a television broadcaster fulfills its public interest obligation,” said NAB President Eddie Fritts. “However, it is unfortunate the FCC would adopt new digital television mandates before completing its reconsideration of whether cable operators are required to actually pass through that programming to viewers. The hard reality is this: Absent a strong DTV multicast carriage rule for cable, there will be less incentive for broadcasters to create new educational shows for children and other public interest programming.”