Bringing a Measure of Sanity to the FCC’s Children’s TV Rules

On Tuesday, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai announced that the FCC would be voting in July to approve modernized rules governing children’s programming on broadcast television. While the current rules may have once served a purpose in a marketplace led by broadcast television, they certainly no longer have a place in today’s world where kids have a seemingly unending number of video options. A look at the facts rather than the rhetoric makes plain why the FCC is finally headed in the right direction.

In Washington, we often see issues boiled down to headlines and talking points. Undoubtedly, we’ll see some of this in the coming weeks as certain opponents suggest without support that the FCC’s proposed reforms are bad for kids.

If we are living in the world of facts, however, there should be no argument that the FCC is correct to be addressing a long-overdue issue. Broadcasters take incredibly seriously the responsibility to serve our communities – including children – with the programming on which they rely. But the reality is that today’s kids are not turning to broadcast television for their video needs. This truth should not be a surprise given the fierce competition for kids’ and families’ attention. In addition to the myriad cable television channels that now specialize in kids programming, the internet has transformed the way young people interact with video. Kids programming is no longer about the half-hour program on Saturday morning. Now, kids can watch anytime, anywhere and on any device, and they do. The landscape has completely changed.

Don’t take my word for it – just look at the numbers. Last year, fewer than 90 children ages 2-17 watched any given educational and informational program on the average NBC or CBS affiliate station via broadcast antenna. In the last 10 years, Saturday morning viewership of the four major English-language broadcast networks by kids ages 2-11 declined by a remarkable 71 percent. And out of the 4 hours and 30 minutes that kids ages 2-16 spent watching video content per day in 2017, they spent only 37 minutes of that time watching broadcast TV.

In contrast, in 2017 kids ages 2-16 spent 2 hours and 3 minutes watching internet-based content and 1 hour and 49 minutes watching pay-TV. This makes sense given that 98 percent of homes with children have mobile devices, such as tablets or smartphones, and as of 2017, 75 percent of kids ages eight and younger lived in a home with an internet-connected TV. Ninety-five percent of teens ages 13-17 also own a smart phone or have access to one, and 93 percent of teens ages 13-15 use social platforms to access video, including 82 percent through YouTube, 72 percent through Netflix and 64 percent through cable or satellite TV.

Even if a barrage of data makes your eyes glaze over, just look around at your sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, brothers, sisters or friends. What do they watch? How long do they watch? On what devices do they watch? Is it primarily over-the-air?

I’m confident the answers to these questions link the data to what you know to be true in your daily life. Kids have tons of options that have completely transformed their viewing habits.

What hasn’t changed, however, are the rules that treat the world as if we are still living in the 1980s or 90s. Indeed, you may be wondering why it’s necessary (or even permissible) for the government to impose content regulations on broadcast television in the first place. Perhaps that’s a conversation for another day. Regardless, we are well past time to adopt common sense reform of rules that were promulgated well before cable television and the internet began to dominate children’s attention.

Fortunately, in a process led by FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, the FCC took on this important project. The FCC recognized the need for reform, not merely to reduce burdens to broadcast television stations, but to benefit kids and the community as a whole. Broadcasters cannot own an unlimited number of channels; they have limited airtime to deliver the programming their communities demand. That is why the FCC is proposing to modify its current requirement that broadcasters air three hours of children’s television programming each week to give broadcasters more options on how to best serve kids and the general public.

For example, per the draft Order released by the Commission yesterday, rather than requiring that all programs be 30 minutes or more in length, the FCC plans to allow broadcasters to experiment with different models to reach kids. Anyone who is around young people knows that kids watch videos in short bursts and are far less likely to sit for a 30-minute program. The FCC also acknowledges what we all know about how kids watch programs. Outside of live sports, appointment viewing is no longer the norm. By allowing broadcasters to air some programs that are not regularly and weekly scheduled, it gives them the opportunity to get creative in how to best serve kids. Rather than mandating a three-hour block of programming each week, this proposal would unshackle broadcasters and allow them to air more programming at times when kids are more likely to watch, such as over winter, spring or summer breaks.

The changes outlined by the FCC also acknowledge that broadcasters serve a larger audience as well. Stations across the country are expanding their weekend news, public interest programming and live sports that their communities crave. Given that we’ve just passed the 10-year anniversary of the digital television transition, it is also past time that broadcasters are allowed to air some of their children’s mandated television programs on their multicast streams. This adjustment will help broadcasters avoid the unfortunate choice between adding a newscast and meeting their children’s television obligations, and it will cut down on schedule changes to children’s programming that some parties expressed concern about throughout this proceeding. Importantly, multicast streams are available to any family accessing their broadcast programming through a free over-the-air signal.

NAB believes the Commission could have made even greater strides in its effort to modernize the children’s television rules. Many of the obligations that will remain are still hard to justify given the overwhelming facts in the record. In fact, these rules are a cautionary tale for any industry facing regulation; once rules are in place, no matter what the world looks like decades later, it is very difficult to update them in any meaningful way.

In lieu of greater reform, however, the FCC did its best to achieve a balance in which all stakeholders should find comfort. Broadcasters will still air a great deal of children’s programming, and homes that don’t have access to the internet will still have access to quality free over-the-air programming. Under these revised rules, however, broadcasters will have the ability to experiment with improving this content in light of today’s video marketplace. If nothing else, the FCC is taking an important and measured step towards a more rational and effective kid vid regime.

Given the inevitable rhetoric, NAB understands that these common-sense reforms did not come easily. Commissioner O’Rielly, Chairman Pai and the FCC staff developing these new rules should be commended for taking seriously the data in the record and working for lasting reform. In the end, they have produced a proposal that will benefit kids and the public at large.