Federal regulators on Sept. 9 unanimously approved rules requiring television stations that air more than one digital channel to show additional children’s programming–in some cases, up to 18 hours of kids’ shows a week.

Currently, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires a broadcaster to air three hours of children’s shows each week on its main analog channel.

Under the new rules, a broadcaster that multicasts a digital signal to air two or more channels will be obligated to show three extra hours of kids’ TV a week for each 24-hour multicast channel. With digital signals, a broadcaster could have as many as six channels.

“At a time where broadcasters using the public airwaves may now be able to increase their programming by as much as six times the content they used to, so too should their obligations to serve our nation’s youth increase,” said FCC Chairman Michael Powell.

Children’s advocacy groups praised the decision, saying parents and their children will benefit from more educational programming.

“We know it’s good for kids. Research shows it’s good for kids, and we wanted to make sure kids have access to a sufficient amount of it,” Patti Miller, director of the kids and media program for Children Now, a children’s advocacy group, said after the commission’s vote.

The new rules also require both analog and digital stations to carry the electronic marker “E/I”–for educational and informational programming–somewhere on the screen throughout the entire show. The idea is to help parents more easily identify children’s programming.

The FCC also took steps to limit the amount of advertising in digital broadcasts of children’s shows. Advertising during children’s educational shows on digital broadcasts will be limited to 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays. The agency expanded its definition of commercials to include the advertisement of any children’s programming that isn’t considered educational programming.

Some children’s groups had pressed for a ban on interactive ads, which would allow kids watching a TV show to touch the screen or click on a character and be taken directly to an internet site for the program. But the FCC concluded that such a move would be premature, because “this technology is not yet in use in children’s programming.”

Instead, the agency ruled that programs aimed at children 12 and under can display a web site address only if the site in question offers a substantial amount of program-related or other non-commercial content and is not intended for commercial purposes. Commissioners also said they would seek further comments on the use of interactivity because of the commercial dangers it might pose.

Broadcasters that multicast only part time on a channel won’t have to air as many hours of kids’ TV as a 24-hour channel would.

Broadcasters also will have some flexibility in satisfying the rules. They could opt to put the additional children’s shows on the multicast station or add them to the three hours already required on the main station.

More than 1,300 local TV stations are airing both analog and digital pictures. By 2007, all of the nation’s 1,700 broadcast stations are supposed to make the transition to digital.

Unlike traditional analog television, digital TV signals use the language of computers, allowing for sharper pictures and potential features such as accompanying internet content and video games. Digital signals can be sent with satellites, by cable, or as over-the-air broadcasts.

Broadcasters can use their digital signals for larger and sharper high-definition broadcasts, but they can also use the available spectrum to air up to six channels. For example, some broadcasters may decide to multicast an all-weather channel or an all-news station with their digital signals.

Consumers will need a digital television or a converter box to see the channels. The new requirements for children’s programming on digital TV will become effective one year after the rules are formally released, expected in a few weeks. The rule mandating the “E/I” logo takes effect 30 days after its publication in the Federal Register.

Links:

Federal Communications Commission
http://www.fcc.gov

Children Now
http://www.childrennow.org