In a letter to FCC Chairman Martin and Commissioners Copps and Tate, Congressman Edward Markey, head of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, has asked that the FCC take strong steps to restrict the advertising of unhealthy food in children's television programs. While applauding voluntary efforts promised by some broadcasters to include in their children's programing more Public Service Announcements (PSAs) for healthy eating, Congressman Markey urged the FCC to do more by cutting in half to 6 minutes per hour the amount of permissible advertising in children's programming , and by finding that a station had not met its obligations to broadcast educational and informational programming directed to children if the station aired ads for unhealthy foods during a program which would otherwise qualify as a toward meeting the station's obligations.
The letter from Congressman Markey, while citing efforts in other countries to enforce similar regulations, does not address basic issues with each of his proposals. First, if sponsorship of children's programming is cut in half, won't that also cut the incentive of broadcasters to air such programs? Cutting sponsorship to the bone would seem to guarantee that broadcasters will do the absolute minimum amount of children's programming required, so that they can air programs where there are no advertising restrictions.
These requirements would also seem to make broadcasters into the food police. Broadcasters will have to educate themselves as to the nutritional qualities of various food products to make sure that nothing impermissible gets on the air. And where will lines be drawn? Could a station safely advertise a fast food store if the ads featured only the salads sold by the store - even where that store might also sell not so healthy alternatives? If definitions are drawn by numerical limits on contents such as sugar, salt and fat (as suggested by the letter), will these limits necessarily lead to advertising the most healthy foods? Will broadcasters be forced to substitute for parents in making decisions about what their children will eat?
In the context of the recently announced inquiry into the children's programming rules, this letter may take on new significance for broadcasters. We have written about that inquiry here. Broadcasters should be sure to express their views about their compliance with the rules by the June 10 deadline, so that critics of the television industry are not the only ones who will be heard.
The FCC's response to Congressman Markey's letter was supposed to have been sent by Friday. Once that letter is made public, television broadcasters will no doubt find enlightening the FCC reaction to the suggestions expressed by the Congressman in his letter.