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TV Notes: Group seeks FCC's help to curb kids' TV viewing

Saturday, March 22, 2003

By The Associated Press

Breaking up their usual flow of commercials, broadcasters sometimes air so-called public service announcements.

You know what those are: Ads, aired gratis, with messages such as "don't drink and drive," "practice safe sex" and "talk to your kids about drugs."

But one all-too-fitting tip is absent: "Talk to your kids about TV."

For instance, you've never seen a spot with Eric McCormack or Jennifer Garner recommending you Just Say No to your kids' excessive viewing. Such an alert would hit the TV industry a little close to home.

But Frank Vespe, executive director of TV-Turnoff Network, has asked the Federal Communications Commission to require broadcasters to do what they have never gotten around to doing voluntarily: Remind their audience that "excessive television viewing has negative health, academic and other consequences for children," and that parents should exercise their "ability to turn off their television sets and limit their children's viewing time."

This appeal reflects the overall mission of Vespe's nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based group, which advocates: "Turn off TV, turn on life."

The primary focus of TV-Turnoff Network is grammar-school-age kids, who, for its annual TV-Turnoff Week, are recruited with their families to pull the plug for seven days.

Last April, some 6.4 million people participated in more than 16,000 organized "turnoffs," says Vespe. A total of 73 national organizations -- including the American Medical Association and YMCA -- support TV-Turnoff Week 2003, coming up April 21-27.

"By encouraging kids to turn off the TV and find other things to do," Vespe says, "we can draw the link between those activities and a major reason kids don't have time to do them."

After all, the average time per day American children spend on TV, Web-surfing and video games -- what Vespe calls "passive-screen entertainment" -- is an estimated 4 hours, 41 minutes.

This helps explain TV-Turnoff's proposal, submitted as one of thousands of "comments" the FCC is receiving as this regulatory body reviews its rules governing ownership of newspapers and broadcast outlets. The FCC's forthcoming vote is widely expected to relax or even eliminate long-standing rules preventing media consolidation.

"For deregulation to work," says Vespe, "consumers need to have access to adequate information, including sufficient information about whether to watch TV, and how much."

TV-Turnoff Network's proposition doesn't call for specific content or wording, as with the warnings on tobacco and alcohol products. Just "periodic announcements" about TV-watching that will reach viewers at the perfect time: while they're watching TV.

"It's a way to say to people while they're watching: 'Hey, are you watching a LOT of TV?' "

And, hey, are your kids glued to the set?

Not only is TV a low-benefit use of youngsters' time, argues TV-Turnoff Network, but also it has negative consequences. One is childhood obesity. Watching TV is a sedentary pastime supercharged with commercials for junk food that's "fun to eat" and for candy-coated cereal legitimized as "part of your good breakfast." Meanwhile, TV fare relies heavily on depictions of violence, to which the average viewer by age 18 has been exposed 200,000 times.

"Broadcasters are getting free use of the public airwaves," Vespe points out, "and we think that in serving the public interest, they should be informing the public about their impact on viewers."

Mandatory airings may be the only way TV-Turnoff Network's position will reach the TV screen. Certainly, news directors and talk-show schedulers haven't scrambled to cover TV-Turnoff Week, according to Vespe.

"In the past, we've done well with print and radio coverage," he says, "but if you watched every television station, you wouldn't know we exist.

"The TV industry just can't figure out how to deal with us," he sums up. "They can't very well say, 'No, no, kids SHOULD watch four hours a day. That's really GOOD for children.' "

But there's no sign that broadcasters are eager to air the sort of public service messages Vespe is advocating -- or that the FCC will require them to.

"The political reality is, the FCC's not going to do it. But we submitted this proposal to make a point, more than because we think it will be transformed into policy.

"Maybe this can spark some debate," he says. "It's a good place to start to get the discussion going."

Will the discussion ever crack the TV airwaves, where it most belongs?

(Frazier Moore, The Associated Press)

Giuliani biopic edited

USA Network has decided to remove a scene from the March 30 premiere of "Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story" that shows a body falling from the north tower of the World Trade Center following the Sept. 11 attacks.

"We have decided that the potential distress that could be caused by [that] shot... outweighs its place in the accounting of the life of [the former New York City mayor]," the network said in a release.


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