Viacom, UCC Take Kids Rules to Court


The battle over new DTV kids rules has wound up in court, where many had expected it to go.

Both the United Church of Christ Office of Communications and Viacom have withdrawn their FCC petitions for review of the rules, asking separate federal courts to throw them out or remand them as arbitrary and capricious.

Viacom, which withdrew its petition Monday, argued that the rules should be vacated entirely because they exceed the commission's authority, are unconstitutional, violate administrative procedures, and are "otherwise contrary to law." It sought review from the deregulatory-minded D. C. circuit.

By contrast, the United Church of Christ took the rules to court because they did not go far enough, including the lack of a total ban on interactive advertising and issues with the preemptions of kids programming the rules allow.

Children's TV activists had expressed concerns in the past few weeks that the networks would follow through on threats to go to court and try to strike down all the rules. The church sought review in the sixth circuit, whose jurisdiction includes Ohio, where the church has its headquarters.

The kids rules, adopted in September 2004, were meant to establish the framework for children's programming obligations in the digital world, including how many hours per week of such programming would be carried on primary and digital multicast channels, limits on Web links featured in programming, and limits on those promos designated as non-educational.

Some of the rules apply to cable as well as broadcast--specifically those related to ad limits--and some are being applied to analog as well as digital broadcasts.

Saying that the rules are complex, need clarification, were a surprise, and suffer legal flaws, Viacom and the parents of NBC and ABC last week asked the commission to delay implementation of the rules until 90 days after it had ruled on their various petitions to reconsider them.

"It would disserve the public interest and impose significant disruption on the companies to require them to make the dramatic changes to their business practices necessary to ensure compliance with the new rules as adopted," the networks said "only to have to reconfigure those practices if and when the rules are modified or reconsidered."

The FCC adopted the rules on minimum educational programming, ad loads, web cross-promotion and more, in November as part of its review of TV station obligations in the digital age. But it applied some of them to analog as well. That caught the nets by surprise, they said, adding that even if it hadn't, some of the new rules are unconstitutional restrictions on the First Amendment.

Among the rules the nets oppose:

1) The definition of program promotions and Web site addresses shown in kids shows as advertising, and thus counted toward limits on kids ads on both broadcast and cable.

2) The ban on host-selling Web links—those Web addresses promoted in a show that use characters from that show to sell products or services. Stations are already prevented from including host-selling TV ads in kids shows.

3) The requirement that free multicast channels meet a kids TV programming benchmark of roughly the same amount of educational/informational (E/I) programming, proportionately, as their core channel three-hours-a-week requirement.