FCC favors fast action on obesity issue

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WASHINGTON -- The high-level government task force on the impact of television on childhood obesity has only met twice but a majority of the FCC isn't necessarily going to wait until the panel finishes its work before slapping new regulations on the media.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin and commissioner Deborah Tate told a key lawmaker and industry critic that the commission could act on the issue before the panel finishes its deliberations this summer.

"While we will await the final recommendations by the task force, some additional restrictions on the type of advertising that airs during children's programming may be necessary absent sufficient industry guidelines," Martin and Tate wrote in a letter to Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass. "We will consider any other suggestions, including yours, to initiate a rule-making on this topic, after the recommendations have been provided. In addition, the commission will implement whatever steps Congress deems appropriate to address the issue."

Markey is chairman of the House Commerce Committee's telecommunications subcommittee. He has long been a critic of the television industry and was the primary author of the Children's Television Act mandating that the networks provide three hours of educational TV each week.

Martin and Tate, both Republicans, have also been critics of the television business, pushing for stiffer and more numerous indecency penalties and government controls on violent content; and they are spearheading, along with another Republican, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, the fat TV task force.

Martin has also pushed to extend content controls to cable television, and he and Tate do so in their letter made public on Monday. The letter is a response to a letter the commission received from Markey.

"While we agree that additional restrictions of advertising on children's programming may be necessary absent sufficient industry guidelines, we would note that recent studies seem to indicate that the problem is significantly worse on children' programming that does not utilize the public airwaves," the commissioners wrote. "As such, any remedies targeted only at those licensees who use the airwaves may be not only insufficient to address the problem, but counterproductive."

Martin and Tate cite a recent Kaiser Foundation study that claims cable networks contain more food ads per hour on kids shows than broadcast channels.

"The problem appears to be at least more pervasive on cable television," they wrote. "Thus, any proposed solution targeted toward those who use the public airwaves and which does not include cable television would be inappropriate and ineffective."

In a separate letter FCC commissioner Michael Copps agreed. "While I want to give this process every chance to work, I also believe that the commission should be prepared to initiate its own rulemaking to examine these issues," he wrote. "I agree with you that the commission has ample authority to do so."

Markey agreed with the commissioners, saying that the existence of the task force shouldn't freeze commission action.

"I continue to believe that the commission should begin the process of developing a public record on problematic food advertising to children," he said. "By starting such a proceeding now, the commission can assure the public that it is developing an adequate, and timely, policy response to an important health issue."
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