Under-16 junk food ad ban alarms TV industry

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LONDON -- British broadcasters reacted with dismay to news that media regulator Ofcom plans to ban all junk food advertising to children younger than 16 as part of a more draconian set of anti-obesity measures than the industry had expected.

The move announced Friday is intended to address the growing issue of childhood obesity in Britain and will affect any advertisements for foods deemed high in fat, sugar or salt -- the so-called HFSS foods.

The industry had been bracing itself for the outcome of Ofcom's two-year review of junk food advertising aimed at those younger than 9, but the news that all programs with more than 20% of viewers younger than 16 also will be affected could prove a body blow, some broadcast bodies warned Friday.

By broadening the restrictions to under-16s, the ban will affect such broadcasters as Sky One, MTV, ITV1 and ITV2 well into their early evening schedules, instead of just the children's channels and kids programming blocks that had been expected.

According to a report Friday in the Guardian, Domino's Pizza is set to become the first casualty of Ofcom's new advertising restrictions, admitting that it is "highly likely" to scrap its long-running sponsorship of "The Simpsons," which airs on Sky One.

Broadcasters were unanimous in their disappointment at the ban, which comes at a time that the U.K. television advertising market already is under significant pressure, having seen two consecutive years of decline.

"Ofcom's surprising and unexpected decision to extend the ban on all HFSS food and drink advertising to include 10- to 15-year-olds has been done without consultation," a spokesman for MTV Networks U.K. and Ireland said.

"This judgment opens up a whole new debate, because, in our view, 10- to 15-year-olds are completely different from under-9-year-olds. We will actively engage in the very short consultation period that has been offered to us to voice our concerns and offer alternative solutions to ensure that we can continue to make a significant contribution to broadcasting in the U.K.," the music channel added.

Jane Lighting, CEO of U.K. broadcaster Five, said the ban will make local production of children's programming too expensive and said the prospects for the kids' production business were "bleak."

"This is a tough decision, and we are disappointed it is even more draconian than the stringent measures that Ofcom originally proposed," she said. "Five has a continuing commitment to broadcasting children's programs both for our 'Milkshake!' preschool audience and for older children. However, these restrictions will deny us substantial revenue and make the economics of producing children's programs a lot more difficult in the future."

Ofcom, the independent regulator of the U.K. communication industries, has priced the policy shift at £40 million ($75.7 million) a year in terms of lost advertising revenue, but broadcasters have warned that the impact could be far higher and put the local production of kids' programming in serious jeopardy.

"Ofcom believes that the best way to achieve its objectives would be a total ban on high-fat, -salt and -sugar food and drink advertisements in and around all programs of particular appeal to children under the age of 16, broadcast at any time of day or night on any channel," Ofcom said.

"This would include a total ban in and around all children's programming and on dedicated children's channels as well as in youth-oriented and adult programs which attract a significantly higher than average proportion of viewers under the age of 16."

Beginning in January, "all commercial channels will face a total ban on junk food advertising around all children's programming, on all children's channels and around all programs that have a 'particular appeal' to under-16-year-olds," Ofcom said. It is opening up a "short but focused" consultation period, which will end before the holidays, to discuss the changes.

Ofcom said the move also will apply to international channels -- like the new Al Jazeera English channel -- that operate under a U.K. broadcast license.

"The restriction will apply to all broadcasters licensed by Ofcom and based in the U.K., including international broadcasters transmitting from the U.K. to audiences overseas," the regulator said.

The new rules also will ban the use of celebrities or cartoon characters in advertising aimed at young children.

Producers' body PACT also reacted to the ban Friday, calling for Parliament to intervene in the issue to protect the programming industry here.

"There needs to be an urgent debate about the future of children's programming in the U.K.," CEO John McVay said. "PACT will be bringing this to the attention of government ministers and will be looking to Parliament, the culture media and sport select committee and ministers to address the situation."

According to independent research commissioned by the body, PACT predicts that the ban will result in a loss of £25 million ($47.3 million) in investment in new U.K. kids programming, amounting to nearly 80% of output from the independent production sector.

But the moves announced by the regulator already have won strong political backing, as parliamentarians become aware of the long-term costs of obesity in terms of health care expenditure.

The ban was welcomed by Chancellor Gordon Brown, who said he would host a seminar in Downing Street to listen to the views of parents and consumer groups on the obesity issue, in partnership with Culture Minister Tessa Jowell, who also welcomed Ofcom's conclusions.

"This is a complex area," Jowell said. "Ofcom has sought to strike a balance which promotes the health of our children but also considers the impact on our broadcasting industries, while taking a proportionate view based on the evidence of the likely impact on the range and quality of TV programs for children."
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