Kids TV at issue again

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Switch to digital brings up a new round of debate

A government look into regulatory issues in kids' TV programming raised by the coming switch to digital TV has kicked off a donnybrook between broadcasters and consumer groups over how much kids' content to require and whether current ad curbs on kids' programs go far enough.

Also at issue: Whether the kind of interactive links that digital TV allows should be limited for children's shows and whether commercials or on-air promos for those shows should be rated for content.

How much the struggle matters is uncertain. When the Federal Communications Commission last September asked broadcasters and consumer groups how current children's TV rules should translate in the digital age, Democrats were in charge, including former FCC Chairman Bill Kennard. Mr. Kennard has since resigned. Commissioner Michael Powell-a Republican who called the query "premature"-is now chairman.

On one side, the Center for Media Education and some other consumer groups said broadcasters who could split their signal and offer multiple channels should provide the currently required three hours a week, plus more.

The Center for Media Education at first also sought a complete ban on any interactive links between kids' shows and commercial sites. It now is urging a more limited ban. Shows could offer a link as long as the link wasn't to a page selling anything, but show advertisers couldn't offer a direct link from their commercials.

Consumer group Children Now said digital TV provides a means for aiming programs more narrowly to children according to age. It urged the FCC to require broadcasters to use 3% of their time for kids' programs but said broadcasters should be able pick which channels the programs air on.

Several consumer groups further urged that existing limits on kids' shows ads-10 1/2 minutes on weekends and 12 minutes on weekdays-be extended to digital TV. One said that program promotions, as well as ads, should be counted in determining compliance.

The Center for Media Education said promotions should be subject to either V-chip screening or should be rated as suitable for children's programs. V chips currently can't be used to block commercials or station and network promotions since ads and promos aren't rated for content.

Broadcasters and cable networks, meanwhile, argued that imposing new requirements on additional digital channels is premature and that the need for more kids' shows hasn't been demonstrated.

The National Cable Television Association warned that banning links "may chill the development of new and innovative programming choices for children," while General Electric Co.'s NBC wrote it didn't believe there was "any justification" to increase the three hours of kids' programming.

Advertising groups warned against quick action.The American Advertising Federation said digital TV is in its infancy and the FCC should "refrain from promulgating rules that would only serve to limit broadcasters' options."

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