September 24th, 2008

FCC Dissatisfied with Media’s Reluctance to Fight Childhood Obesity

By Anna Carugati

In an address to the U.S. Senate yesterday, Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin expressed deep concern that not enough media companies are limiting food and beverage ads targeted at children.

Although he mentioned the voluntary measures taken by The Walt Disney Company, the ION Television Network, Sesame Workshop, Discovery Kids and Cartoon Network, Martin did leave open the possibility that the FCC may have to impose restrictions if the rest of the media industry doesn’t take action.

He pointed to Ofcom, the U.K. media regulatory body, and the ban it placed on junk food ads in programming directed at children. “In recent weeks, there has been some question as to whether children are still being exposed to these ads under the existing restrictions,” said Martin. “Ofcom is reviewing the rules and will be releasing a report on how they might improve regulations to better accomplish their goals of reducing unhealthy advertising towards children.”

Martin cited very troubling trends among American children. The Institute of Medicine found that one-third of American children are either obese or at risk for obesity. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, by the time children enter the first grade, they will have spent the equivalent of three school years in front of the TV.

While praising the work accomplished by Joint Task Force on Media and Childhood Obesity, which sought to bring together government officials, media companies, advertisers and the food and beverage industry to work on behalf of America’s children, Martin was very concerned and disappointed that more media organizations had, “refused to agree to any kind of limit on advertising targeted toward our children.

“While the Task Force succeeded in producing some significant voluntary commitments aimed at reducing the negative impact of the media on children’s eating habits and increasing its positive influence on their behavior,” continued Martin, “ultimately it did not reach an agreement on two key issues: 1) a uniform standard of what constitutes healthy versus unhealthy foods; and 2) the willingness of most media companies to place any limit on the advertising of unhealthy foods on children’s programs.”

The FCC Chairman did point to companies that had made significant voluntarily commitments. “Fifteen of the nation’s largest food and beverage manufacturers including Kraft Foods and Kellogg agreed to curtail advertising of “unhealthy food” to children under age 12 and others are reformulating current products.”

On the media side, Martin continued, “Disney and Ion have made the most aggressive commitments. The Disney company’s Healthy Kids Initiative set new standards for the food served in Disney’s parks, disallowed the licensing of Disney characters to foods that did not meet strict nutritional standards and disallowed the promotion of foods on the Disney Channel that do not meet those same standards.

“ION media’s Qubo was referred to as the “gold standard” by children’s advocates for their leadership. ION has committed to only licensing their characters for use with healthy foods and they agreed to no longer accept advertising for unhealthy food targeted at children.

And Martin singled out several companies that took significant steps to limit the licensing of their characters for use to promote unhealthy foods. Discovery Kids, Cartoon Network and Sesame Workshop announced commitments to license characters only to promote food and beverages that meet specific nutritional standards.

While Martin applauds these developments, he clearly stated they are not enough. “While it was—and always is—my hope that we will not have to resort to actual requirements, and I strongly encouraged the media companies to propose some voluntary limitations on advertising targeting our children, in the end no widespread voluntary commitment on behalf of the media industry was forthcoming. On the voluntary side, I am left to conclude that, sadly, no limit was even close to being presented.”


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