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FCC looks to revamp children’s media rules, but advocates cry foul

One of the FCC’s many jobs as a media regulator is to make sure that there is adequate time being dedicated by broadcasters to educational content for kids. As the media landscape changes, however, so too should the regulations — and the FCC is looking to update its “Kid Vid” rules for the 21st century. But the agency’s proposal is half-baked, warn some advocates.

This latest move, one of several in the FCC’s so-called “modernizing media regulation” efforts, got its start back in January, when Commissioner Michael O’Rielly wrote a blog post explaining why he felt it was high time children’s television regulations were revisited.

The chief reason for this was essentially that with the plethora of different avenues by which kids can reach educational media these days, it doesn’t make sense to have regulations requiring broadcasters to have 30-minute shows making up at least 3 hours of content per week. Why not shorter format stuff? Why not let programs on Netflix and Hulu count? Why not allow sub-channels to carry that content instead of main channels? They’re good questions.

Following this post, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai asked O’Rielly to head up a review of the rules and propose changes. And today the FCC votes on whether that proposal should be made official. (To be clear, it would then have to be formalized, opened for comment, and voted on again later to take effect.)

Does it seem like they skipped a step? Perhaps the step where they answer those questions listed above? You’re not the only one who thinks so.

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, or NPRM, raises all kinds of questions.

  • Are kids really consuming more content on other platforms? How much, and who? Are some populations left out of this new economy? If so, how will they be affected by the new regulations?
  • Absent regulation requiring 30-minute-long shows, will anyone bother to make them? Who makes them now, and would they continue to? Is the 30 minute show length useful or detrimental? Do parents like it? Do kids like it?
  • Among underserved households that only receive basic broadcast or cable, and/or have inadequate broadband, or lack multiple screens, how is kids’ media consumed? How will those households be affected? What do parents in that position think would be helpful?
  • If programs are not listed on a channel’s schedule, how will kids and parents find them? How will programming meeting the “educational” threshold be designated or searchable on other platforms?

Some of these questions are in the NPRM itself, such as when it asks whether there are any studies on engagement with short vs. full-length shows. Others are the natural result of a little thought on the topic.

The problem is not that the answers to these questions are all negative or troubling — it’s that there are no answers at all. The NPRM makes many “tentative” conclusions based on little or no evidence, and when there is evidence it seems to have been provided by broadcasters.

Critics proposed an easy solution to this: instead of proposing new rules based on scant data, change this NPRM into an NOI — a “Notice of Inquiry.” An NOI is the appropriate official item for when you have more questions than answers; you get lots of answers, then you use that information to create a more informed NPRM.

A coalition of advocates for children’s welfare writes the following in a letter to the FCC:

We agree that major changes have taken place in the video marketplace and that it is appropriate for the FCC to take a fresh look at its rules in light of these changes. But the draft NPRM appears to be a wish-list for broadcasters, which does nothing to serve the needs of children. It makes numerous ‘tentative conclusions’ based on no evidence. Finalizing these ‘tentative conclusions’ would effectively eliminate the existing rules, and as a result, many children would lose access to educational programming designed to serve their needs. Children of color and those whose families are of limited means will especially be harmed by adopting these tentative conclusions, because they are less able to afford cable, satellite, or broadband (even if available), tend to watch more television, and may have fewer opportunities to learn in other ways. Changing the draft to a NOI would allow the Commission to obtain the necessary evidence and to craft proposals in light of that evidence.

And Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), joined by several colleagues, writes:

In the absence of key information about how American children access educational programming on television and how significant changes to the ‘Kid Vid’ rules would affect this access, the Commission’s proposed rulemaking is premature. Given the critical importance of these rules and our concern that several proposals in the Commission’s NPRM have the potential to undermine the rules’ effectiveness, we respectfully request that the FCC revise its item on children’s programming rules as an NOI and go through a rigorous fact finding process. The Commission should not act in haste to revise rules that can negatively impact children in our country.

Unfortunately the majority was not interested in this line of action, which would of course have had the effect of delaying the whole operation. The Commission voted 3-1 (on party lines, naturally) to approve the item.

Commissioner Rosenworcel, in her remarks on the item, lamented the lack of due diligence:

I regret my colleagues refused to convert this effort to a notice of inquiry so that we could include the evidence we need to proceed fairly. I am disappointed that this rulemaking all but announces where we are headed—a future with less quality children’s programming that is also harder for families to locate and watch. Moreover, I regret that dozens of times the text before us cites the need to ease industry of the “burdens” of serving our children with educational programming under the law. It never once cites children, parents, families—or mothers. So take it from this one: This is not the effort our children deserve.

Concerned parents and experts in the field should still feel free to comment; this probably won’t be the melee that net neutrality was. That it is an NPRM and not an NOI just means it’s critical to make those comments sooner and more forcefully, as the next time we see this item it will be when it is being proposed as an official order. You can file a comment into the system here.

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Updated: July 12, 2018 — 5:04 pm

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