Washington Watch


Nick, Discovery Get Healthy

Voluntarily limit junk food ads, in bid to head off regulation

After facing years of pressure from policymakers and parents groups, Discovery Kids and Nickelodeon last week agreed to limit use of their licensed characters or brands to healthy food and beverage makers. The exception to the self-imposed rule will be special occasions, such as birthdays, Halloween or Valentine's Day.

“Discovery Kids is excited to be able to make this commitment, thereby furthering the fight against childhood obesity and its own mission of enriching kids by encouraging them to lead healthy and vibrant intellectual and physical lives,” said the company in a statement.

As part of the plan, Discovery Kids also is partnering with more than 20 produce companies to encourage kids to eat more fruits and vegetables. The promotions will run in select grocery stores across the country.

Nickelodeon made its announcement in a letter to Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.

“Knowing of your strong interest in this issue I wanted to make you aware that Nickelodeon will be adopting a policy in which the use of our licensed characters on food packaging will be limited to products that meet 'better for you' criteria as established by marketing partners in accordance with governmental dietary guidelines,” wrote Nickelodeon President Cyma Zarghami.

Markey, who held a widely covered hearing on the issue last October, applauded the efforts. “As childhood obesity is a serious public health issue, it is vital that the media companies join food and beverage marketers in adopting socially responsible marketing strategies,” he said in a statement. Advertising advocacy groups argue that regulating advertisers and marketers would amount to an assault on free commercial speech.

Discovery Kids will start immediately, while Nickelodeon will start implementing the plan in 2009, after its current licensing agreements expire. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and commissioners Michael Copps and Deborah Taylor Tate, all of whom told Markey in an FCC oversight hearing last month that they would be willing to regulate kids' TV marketing if companies didn't step up their voluntary efforts, also released statements of support.

Discovery and Nickelodeon join Walt Disney in only allowing their brands and characters to appear on food products that meet specific nutritional standards. Last month, 11 major food and beverage companies said they would stop advertising “unhealthy” consumables to kids under 12.

Microsoft to FCC: Give Us a Do-Over

Microsoft last week asked the FCC for a do-over on tests that revealed interference when unlicensed portable devices run in the digital broadcast spectrum.

According to Microsoft, both the FCC's and the software giant's test methodologies were correct, but a scanner in the prototype device was damaged, skewing the test's results. A preliminary test of a second device provided better results, which Microsoft and its allied computer firms would like to have the chance to officially recreate.

The National Association of Broadcasters, the Association for Maximum Service Television and sports broadcasters all protested Microsoft's request, saying that interference already has been inexorably proven. Sports broadcasters say the devices would interfere with wireless microphones they use to cover games.

“The FCC performed rigorous tests on the Microsoft devices, and we are confident that its finding that these devices cause interference to television reception is accurate,” said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton in a statement. “By continuing to press its self-serving agenda, Microsoft is playing Russian Roulette with America's access to interference-free TV reception.”

IBM Wins U.S. Bid For Settop Boxes

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has awarded IBM a $120 million contract to provide services to provide set-top boxes to allow analog TVs to decode digital signals.

The government has allotted NTIA $1.5 billion to distribute $40 coupons to consumers that will help defray the cost of the DTV converter boxes, which will be required to receive over-the-air signals after analog broadcasts cease on February 17, 2009. NTIA has selected IBM to provide various services for the “Digital-to-Analog Converter Box Coupon Program,” including consumer education; coupon distribution to consumers and to retail stores; and financial processing to reimburse retailers, maintain records, and prevent waste, fraud and abuse.

Between January 1, 2008, and March 31, 2009, all U.S. households may request up to two coupons to be used toward the purchase of two converter boxes, which should cost between $50 and $80, until the program's initial $990 million has been exhausted.

After the initial phase of this program is completed, NTIA may request an additional $510 million already authorized by Congress. During this “contingent period,” coupons will be available only to households that rely on over-the-air broadcasting as their sole source of television programming.