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FCC starts to unwind 'kid vid' rules for broadcasters

Critics worry proposed changes could result in fewer educational TV shows for kids.

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The Republican-led FCC says the 20-year-old rules need updating.

Marguerite Reardon/CNET

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday voted to start the process of easing rules broadcasters must follow for airing children's programming.

But Democrats critical of the plan worry that weakening rules could be bad for kids.

The so-called kid vid rules adopted in the 1990s were supposed to address concerns that kids were seeing too much violence and advertising when they tuned in to their favorite Saturday morning cartoons. After years of lobbying by parents' groups, legislation to keep broadcasters in check was passed. The FCC developed a set of rules that spelled out what broadcasters needed to do to ensure kids were getting quality educational TV programming.  

But FCC officials say their 20-year-old rules need updating. They argue that on-demand and online video platforms like Amazon, Netflix and Hulu have changed the way kids watch TV.

"The FCC's current children's television rules don't reflect the vast changes that have revolutionized the video marketplace in recent years," said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. "It's beyond time to take a fresh look at our 'kid vid' regulations and explore how they should be modernized."

Specifically, the Republican-led FCC says requirements like mandating programs be 30 minutes or more in length and that they must air at regularly scheduled times doesn't fit with modern viewing habits. Commissioner Mike O'Rielly used his own daughter as an example.

"As a parent of a 2-year-old, I can attest that children are not watching programming in 30-minute blocks," he said. He also claimed that the requirement has "killed off shorter, high-quality programs that were once popular and educational, such as Schoolhouse Rock and In the News."

The FCC is proposing eliminating these requirements. It's also proposing to eliminate other requirements like quarterly reports that describe the educational programming they're offering. The proposal suggests making those reports annual. And the FCC would like to see broadcasters satisfy their kids programming obligations via sponsorship efforts or other "non-broadcast" efforts.

Jessica Rosenworcel, the lone Democrat on the FCC, acknowledged changes in TV viewing. But she said the FCC's proposal guts the old rules and leaves children vulnerable.

The FCC's proposal "takes the values in the Children's Television Act and instead of modernizing them for the digital age, seeks to discard them with a cruel disregard for the children left behind," she said in a statement.

Sens. Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, held a press conference Wednesday warning against the proposed changes. Markey said he's open to modernizing the rules to fit the times, but he wants the FCC to gather more information about the potential effects the changes might have. Advocacy groups, such as the Parents Television Council and Common Sense Media, agree that more study is needed.

"I am deeply disappointed that the FCC has moved forward to change these rules without undergoing a thorough fact-gathering process to develop a complete understanding of how these changes will affect children, particularly millions of children from low-income and rural communities," he said in a statement. 

Markey, who led the fight to pass the Children's Television Act in the 1990s when he served in the US House of Representatives, said he fears the FCC's revised rules will result in fewer educational programs on broadcast TV for children, disproportionately affecting poor and rural children.

"All children, regardless of their ZIP code or their family's income, deserve access to educational programming that will help them thrive and grow," he said. "But the FCC's proposal would make children's programming harder to find or reduce the amount of programming altogether. We shouldn't deregulate simply for deregulation's sake and especially not for rules that impact our nation's most vulnerable residents, our children."

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