Senator plans bill to regulate children’s media content

Friday, July 24, 2009

WASHINGTON — Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., this week said he planned to
introduce legislation to regulate children's media content. The proposed
legislation aims to create a “protective landscape” where youngsters are free
from violent and sexually graphic images.

At the July 22 Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
hearing on “Rethinking the Children’s Television Act for a Digital Media Age,”
several senators and witnesses agreed that more must be done to improve the
quality of media children receive on all screens, including cell phones,
computers and game consoles.

The committee did not indicate what restrictions potential legislation would
impose on television broadcasters and other media providers. No First Amendment
or other constitutional objections were voiced by anyone at the hearing.
Rockefeller, who chairs the committee, did not say when he might introduce

Witnesses included Julius Genachowski (new Federal Communications Commission
chairman), Gary Knell (CEO and president, Sesame Workshop), John Lawson (ION
Media Networks executive vice president), Sandra Calvert (Georgetown University
Children’s Media Center director), Cyma Zarghami (Nickelodeon & MTVN Family
Group president) and James Steyer (Common Sense Media CEO).

Under the Children’s Television Act, which became law in 1990, over-the-air broadcasters
must follow strict guidelines on educational programming and advertising.
Broadcasters (but not cable or satellite TV) must air at least a 30-minute regularly scheduled weekly program
between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. for children age 16 and younger. Ads that air during
children’s television programs on commercial broadcast stations, including cable and satellite, must be limited
to 12 minutes per hour on weekdays and 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends.

As of Jan. 1, 2007, the FCC requires all broadcasters to offer a minimum
of three hours of educational and/or informational programming per week. The
commercial-time standards for broadcast stations also apply to cable and satellite broadcasters, but only for children age 12 and younger.

Rockefeller said his main concerns were (1) to provide “good media content”
for children, and (2) to protect children from “harmful media.” Rockefeller has
long supported legislation against indecency in the media. He voted for the
Children's Television Act in 1990 and the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act in
2004, which increased fines for broadcasters who violated indecency

In the wake of significant changes in technology, the hearing explored ways
in which the CTA could be improved for the digital media age. “We limit the
amount of advertising, but we don’t regulate the content,” Sen. Bill Nelson,
D-Fla., said during the hearing. “Is it time to revisit this issue?” he

By the time children reach age 6, they will have spent the equivalent of 3
school years in front of the television, Rockefeller said. “I have a really hard
time getting past that thought. We have a right to be concerned.”

In an effort last year to gain support from other senators about violence in
the media, Rockefeller said he was “absolutely shot down … . There was this
automatic mindset that because the First Amendment exists, you can’t even be
talking about [regulating violence], so don’t waste our time.”

Steyer of Common Sense Media teaches First Amendment law at Stanford
University in the education school and political science department. He assured
the committee that it could regulate media content and take advertising
regulations a step further. Steyer said banning interactive advertising on
cable and satellite TV was a “no-brainer.”

“It should be done, the FCC can do that, and I hope they will do that in the
upcoming months,” Steyer said.

“I very much believe that we can frame protective efforts by this committee
and by this government that balance important First Amendment freedoms with the
best interests of our kids and families,” Steyer added. He voiced concern
about health issues, such as childhood obesity, violence, and sexual messages,
which he claimed are implicit in today’s media. Such messages, he maintained,
come from “adult content kids are consuming.”

Several witnesses claimed that the V-chip in televisions that allows parents
to block certain programs or channels was not user-friendly. At the hearing,
Rockefeller spoke of strategies to simplify such technology, and panelists
agreed it needed to be simplified. At the hearing’s outset, Rockefeller proposed
a red button on a remote control or the television set that would allow parents
to find the rating of a program quickly and block it if they wish. Steyer noted
that such a “red button” technology was closer to becoming available than people

FCC Chairman Genachowski said that although his agency’s Web site offers
useful information to parents about children’s television, the material is not
easy to find. “That and other relevant information for parents should be easier
to find and easier to use. My goal is for the FCC to have a model government Web
site for parents and children,” he added.

The panelists also urged that parents be provided with information on
educational programming, educating children about digital literacy and helping
them become smart media consumers and creators. “If our kids are not digitally
literate, they will not compete, they will not grow up in the right way, and we
need to educate their parents and teachers in that context as well,” Steyer

Rachel Seeman Collins is an intern at the First Amendment Center. She
holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Slippery Rock University and is
working on her master’s in mass communication at Miami University in

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