FCC Comments Raise Issues Regarding Content-Rated Ads and Product-Placement Blocking that Underscores the Need for Further Parental Controls Discussions

Television parental content controls are still under review by the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”), and children’s activist groups are urging the FCC to mandate technology that would allow viewers to block “objectionable” advertising material.

As a follow-up to the last month’s article regarding the FCC’s Notice of Inquiry to Implement the Child Safe Viewing Act of 2007 (“CVSA”), thousands of comments have been submitted to the docket already. In addition, some children’s advocacy groups have suggested that the FCC (1) require broadcast networks, cable networks and individual broadcast stations to rate advertising content, and (2) facilitate an industry solution to allow parents to preemptively identify and block programs containing embedded advertising messages. It would be advisable for industry to directly address the nuanced issues that should be considered if ad ratings and embedded advertising blocking proposals are further explored, such as: 

Advertisement Content Ratings:

  • Should advertising content be tailored to the rating of the television program (i.e., if a television program is rated TV14 under the Television Parental Guidelines, should all advertisements contained in the program-hour be suitable for at least a TV14 audience)?
  • Would the content rating be based on the actual content of the advertisement?
  • Or, would the content rating be based on the product advertised (i.e., feature film ads may not contain racy content, but the full-length feature could have nudity, expletives and violence)?
  • How would the FCC treat advertisements for entertainment-related toys (i.e., toys related to the movies “Pirates of the Caribbean” and the “Transformers” are popular for young children, but the movies themselves are both rated PG-13)?
  • How would the FCC treat popular children’s products that symbolize violence, (i.e., advertisements for toy guns or even common war play board games, such as Battleship!)?

Product-Placement Blocking:

  • Would the regulation be limited to direct paid product placements?
  • Or, must the program-producer avoid any mention of logo-related goods or apparel?
  • What if the brand is essential to the story line or title of a program (i.e., if the full length feature, “The Devil Wears Prada,” is broadcast on television, must it become “The Devil Wears Undisclosed Designer Label” in the promotions, for the television broadcast to avoid blocking)?

Bear in mind, the CVSA directs the FCC to examine advanced parental control technologies that would be compatible with various communications devices and platforms, consistent with the medium-specific First Amendment analysis. Currently, parents are faced with several different ratings standards for content, depending upon the media: (1) the TV Parental Guidelines for television programs, (2) the MPAA Film Ratings for feature films, (3) the Entertainment Software Ratings Board ratings for video games, and (4) various Internet web-filtering technologies. So, to the extent that commenters can discuss the proposed advertising ratings and blocking technologies in the context of synergizing the different forms of ratings standards, the comments are likely to be more effective. 

Why this Matters:

A report on television parental controls is due to Congress Aug. 29, and this is likely to be the first media proceeding tackled by presumptive FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. The presumptive chairman is also a founding board member of a parental content control group, Common Sense Media, so he is likely to be well-versed on this issue and less willing to accept that the status quo is ideal. Further, assuming Al Franken wins the Senate seat in Minnesota; with Arlen Specter’s recent announcement, the Democrats in Congress now have a majority in the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. These recent Senate gains would make it easier for Congress to address comprehensive parental controls reform, if it chooses to do so. 

There is still time to add meaningful nuance to the docket that is being reviewed by FCC staff and will ultimately be summarized for Congress. Any interested commenter may submit reply comments until May 18.