Digital broadcasters must expand tot TV

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission put digital TV stations on notice Thursday: Either air more kids programming or risk losing your license.

In a unanimous decision, the FCC required TV stations with more than one digital channel to air additional children’s shows. In some instances, the expanded obligation would dramatically increase children’s programming — from three hours to 18 hours each week. New regs will take effect in one year.

“For too long, children have been ignored as the digital era unfolds,” said Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, who pushed for the new mandates.

The order is one of the first as the FCC attempts to speed up the country’s TV transition from analog signals to digital.

Deadline is firm

Earlier this week, FCC topper Michael Powell endorsed a staff plan giving broadcasters a firm deadline of January 2009 to complete the digital conversion.

The agency currently requires a broadcaster to air three hours of children’s programming each week on its main analog channel; that means shows such as “Sesame Street,” “Barney” and “Blue’s Clues.”

As more stations have started to broadcast two or more channels on a digital signal — known as “multicasting” — consumer and children’s advocacy groups have called on the agency to apply the three-hour rule to every channel.

After some internal debate within Powell’s office and the FCC as a whole, the agency consented to the demands, requiring a broadcaster that multicasts to provide three extra hours of kids TV a week for each 24-hour channel it airs.

The decision was welcome news to advocacy groups, though some argued multicasting requirements should not be limited to children’s programming alone.

Common Cause and the Center for Digital Democracy urged Powell and the FCC to demand broadcasters expand their public affairs and electoral coverage as well.

‘Just one step’

“Today’s action is just one step in what should be a set of policies that define the public interest in the digital age,” the groups added.

The new rules force both analog and digital stations to make it easier for parents to recognize kids shows by carrying the electronic mark “E/I” — for education and informational programming — somewhere on the screen for the entire length of the show. That reg will take effect 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register.

The FCC also tried to head off a new debate over interactive advertising. Consumer groups have voiced concern that, in the future, kids will watch TV on computer screens that enable them to click on an ad during the program and be taken to a commercial Web site. The FCC put off a rule on all commercial Web links, but told broadcasters it was illegal to display their Web sites on kids shows unless the content of the sites is primarily educational.

Activist group Children Now was not satisfied with the FCC’s partial decision on interactive advertising.

“While we are gratified by much of today’s ruling, we remain concerned about protecting children from the potential harms of interactive advertising,” org said. “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.”

The National Assn. of Broadcasters weighed in with its own complaints, grumbling that the FCC was imposing new requirements before the digital transition has a chance to get off the ground.

Specifically, the NAB argued the FCC first should weigh in on a larger, controversial debate over whether cablers should be required to pass broadcasters’ multiple digital signals on to viewers.

“NAB recognizes that providing children’s educational programming is one of many ways that a television broadcaster fulfills its public interest obligation,” said NAB prexy Eddie Fritts. “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.”

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