The Federal Communications Commission decreed that during shows geared toward children age 12 and under, cable and broadcast operators may not display addresses for Web sites that contain any links to commercial content. The rules took effect on January 2.
Never mind that recent visits to NickJr.com and Noggin.com, online properties of kid networks, turned up more advertisements for Tylenol cold medicine and Nissan minivans than for anything youth-targeted. And some child advocacy groups would argue that many kids' television shows amount to program-length commercials for the toys and edible goodies endorsed by their stars.
"The entire new media landscape is one immense personalized ad targeted at kids," said Jeff Chester, director of the advocacy group Center for Digital Democracy, which has pressed the FCC to extend children's TV programming rules to the Internet.
The new rules came about because regulators were concerned that some broadcasters were using children's programming as a billboard for addresses to Web sites "established solely for commercial purposes"--and thus sneaking around federal law. Under the 1990 Children's Television Act, every hour of children's programming may contain only 10.5 minutes of advertising during weekends and 12 minutes on weekdays.
The nameless example the FCC cited was a Web site address displayed "in a crawl at the bottom of the screen." (PDF) In its view, "including the display during program material converts that program material into commercial matter, just as a host telling children to race to their local toy store would."
A 2004 version of the FCC's rules prompted outcry primarily from the advertising, cable and broadcast industries, which argued the restrictions violated their First Amendment rights. The final product, adopted last September, arose from an agreement from the four major broadcast networks, three major children's cable networks (Nickelodeon, Disney and Cartoon Network), and a coalition of advocacy groups called the Children's Media Policy Coalition.
The practical effects of the final rules remain to be seen. At the moment, no one is accusing the networks of failing to comply. A few hours of recent Nickelodeon and Disney Channel viewing turned up no sign of the companies' Web site addresses during programming time, although they appeared in some ads and promotions seemingly viewed by the same audience.
Under the new rules, that's permitted. In general, any addresses for sites with commercial content can be displayed so long as they're against the networks' allotted advertising minutes and "clearly separated" from show content.
The rules also permit the display of addresses for "noncommercial" Web sites during actual show broadcasts. Sites fit that bill if they offer "a substantial amount of bona fide program-related or other noncommercial content," aren't primarily intended for commercial purposes, clearly label commercial content, and don't link directly to e-commerce sites or other pages with commercial material.
That means Nickelodeon wouldn't necessarily have to redesign its Nick.com home page if it wanted to broadcast the Web site address to its young viewers, even though the site on a recent visit turned up at least four ads and more than one link to an e-commerce shop selling branded paraphernalia. The popular network would have a number of other options for promoting its Web site, including simply relegating it to display during commercial breaks.
The situation has perplexed some children's advocates. "It's left major loopholes for advertisers and marketers to target kids," said Susan Linn, a psychologist and co-founder of the advocacy coalition Campaign for A Commercial-Free Childhood.
A Nickelodeon spokeswoman declined to comment on the channel's practices except to say it was "in compliance." Representatives for the cable and broadcast industries and other major children's networks, including ABC Disney, did not grant interview requests.
The new FCC rules also attempt to include the Internet in what were once only TV-oriented restrictions on using children's characters to endorse merchandise.
Existing rules prohibit TV channels from running ads that use so-called "host selling" during commercial breaks adjacent to children's shows that feature the same characters. For instance, if Company X makes Winnie the Pooh its spokesman for a brand of candy, networks can't air Company X's ad during commercial breaks during programs starring the golden cartoon bear.
Some said that approach, whether directed at TV or the Internet, misses the mark."If Sponge Bob Square Pants is on myriad products, including junk food and junk toys and clothing and wallpaper or whatever, then the program itself is a program-length commercial for those products," Linn said.
She and others said they viewed the rules as only a first step in protecting children from what they consider excess commercialization. They said they'd like to see the FCC impose a ban on so-called "interactive" advertising, a technique they fear will take hold in the future.
"We don't want kids to be able to click on a Web address or on a specific character from the television screen and be transported to a commercial Web site," said Patti Miller, a representative from the California-based advocacy group Children Now, which helped to negotiate the final rules. "This type of advertising would violate the FCC's rules about the separation between program and advertising content."
That issue has already attracted attention in Congress. Last summer, a U.S. Senate panel unanimously adopted an amendment to athat proposed requiring broadcasters and cable operators to "prevent interactivity" in commercial messages aired during children's programming. The amendment's sponsor, Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.V.), has not decided whether to reintroduce that bill but hopes to hold hearings this year, a spokeswoman said.
The idea is sure to encounter renewed resistance from the advertising industry, which has accused the policy's supporters of "stifling the development of new technologies and innovative forms of programming even before they exist."
It's unclear what steps the FCC might take next. FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, a Democrat, acknowledged in a statement (PDF) last year that some parts of the rules "are not models of regulatory clarity and certainty" or were too scaled back. Agency spokesman Clyde Ensslin said there are no immediate plans to issue any clarifications to the current rules, and any inquiries are being handled on a "case by case" basis.
What remains is "a quiet-before-the-storm period," said Tarah Grant, a McLean, Va.-based attorney with the firm Hogan & Hartson. "The rules are now effective, but the FCC hasn't begun investigating complaints for alleged violations."