In April, the FCC released a public notice fielding proposals for changes to broadcasting regulations. The action was not unusual, but it was the first request of its kind made by Ajit Pai, who President Obama nominated to fill a Republican FCC board seat in 2011 and President Donald Trump designated chairman in January. Seen by many as an ally of the broadcast industry, Pai was understood to be seeking deregulatory strategies. He was presented by the general public and industry insiders with a host of options, but one stood out. Broadcast companies suggested that regulations limiting the number and length of advertisements run against children’s programming be relaxed. Eyebrows were raised.
Two of those eyebrows belonged to Angela Campbell, Director of the Institute for Public Representation Communications and Technology Clinic and Professor of Law at Georgetown University. In her free time, she also serves on the board for the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.
“I was monitoring what comments came through,” says Campbell. “Then we started to file.”
Campell has spent years watching broadcasters trying to skirt the FCC regulations, which were enacted by Congress in 1996 and stipulate that broadcasters cannot exceed a maximum of 10.5 minutes per hour of ads and 12 minutes per hour of ads on weekends and weekdays respectively on channels that provide children’s programming.
The legislation was introduced on multiple grounds. Lawmakers wanted to limit the incentive for advertisers to pivot away from educational programming in order to optimize for the largest possible audience. Limiting the potential benefits of that move by capping advertising was seen as a means to that end. President Clinton and then First Lady Hilary Clinton strongly supported the move. “Television can be a strong and positive force. It can help children to learn,” the former President said in his opening remarks at a 1996 Children’s Television conference. “It can reinforce rather than undermine the values we work so hard to teach our children.”
Research had also begun to make it clear that advertising had potentially harmful effects on children.
“There are studies that show that advertising influences [kids’] food preferences, and given that they see a lot of ads for high sugar, high-fat junk food products on television, it affects them to have preferences for unhealthy foods,” explains Josh Golin, the executive director of CFACFC. It’s a claim is supported by a considerable body of academic work. Not only do children gain a preference for fast food, they also eat it more often when exposed to more advertising.
Golin also notes that advertising geared toward children can make them more materialistic and susceptible to the belief that “things” — instead of friendships, community, or family — will make them happy. Not only that, the more children were exposed to advertising, the more unhappy they would be with their bodies. These are, one could argue, similar to the effects of advertising on adults. That’s true to an extent, but it overlooks one glaring difference: Children don’t understand that advertising is trying to make them want stuff until they’re roughly 12 years old.
“It’s the same thing as if they were talking to a parent, or a teacher, or somebody that they trusted,” Golin explains.
That’s not to say the current regulations are airtight. “It’s surprising to me that they would even complain about the regulations,” says Campbell. “The rule already has a funny provision.” That would be the loophole known as the “13 to 16 Rule.” By claiming that their children’s shows are actually being made for teens, broadcasters can easily avoid regulatory restraints and air more commercials. This allows broadcasters, for whom this has become common practice, to show children way more ads that they were able to before.
Clearly, the broadcast industry is highly motivated to eliminate advertising regulations despite the fact that doing so could prove harmful to children. Given Ajit Pai’s apparent alignment with that industry, it should come as no surprise that advocates for children like Golin are bracing for what could become a very public head-to-head. Do they know that the regulations will be attacked by Pai or the Trump administration? Certainly not, but threats to PBS funding, which pays for a significant amount of nationally broadcast educational programming, followed quickly on the heels of the Trump inauguration. The administration is anti-regulations and not demonstrably pro-educational programming. Naturally, Campbell is wary.
“The ball is in their court,” Campbell says. It is plain from the tone of her voice that she wishes it were elsewhere.