The Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) recently released a report recommending that the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) step up its efforts to oversee enforcement of the children’s television rules adopted pursuant to the Children’s Television Act of 1990. These rules require broadcasters and multichannel video programming distributors (“MVPDs”) to limit the duration of commercials aired during children’s programming (programming targeted at children 12 and under) and require separation of certain commercial matter from such programming to create a clear distinction between program content and advertising. The rules also impose additional requirements applicable only to broadcasters. Specifically, broadcasters must provide “core children’s programming” designed to further the educational and informational needs of children as part of broadcasters’ public interest obligations.

The report notes that broadcasters and cable operators are airing significantly more children’s programming as a result of multicasting and an increasing number of cable networks targeted to children such that the impact on children and the need to ensure compliance with the rules is much greater. The FCC relies on broadcasters to self-report violations of the children’s television rules during the license renewal process and has issued about 7,000 violations to more than 600 stations during the past two renewal cycles.

However, unlike broadcasters, MVPDs are not required to self-report violations of the Children's Television Act, so in the past, the FCC has monitored MVPD compliance with the rules through public file inspections and watching programming in offices with cable service. The FCC discontinued this practice in 2004 because it found so few MVPD violations of the rules that it decided to shift resources to higher-priority needs. However, in an effort to improve enforcement of the Act and related rules, the GAO report recommends that the FCC develop and implement a strategy for overseeing MVPD compliance with these obligations.

According to the Media Bureau’s July 5 comments responding the GAO report, the FCC is reinstating its audit program with respect to MVPDs and it is our understanding that FCC field offices already have begun to conduct public file inspections with a specific eye toward reviewing children’s programming compliance documentation. To avoid potential liability, MVPDs should take steps to ensure that their internal policies comply with the rules and that their public files are up to date.