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Relaxed FCC Rules Could Send Children’s Programs on a Trip to New Times and Digital Channels

Federal regulators intend to ease requirements for television broadcasters to air children’s programming, saying a decades-old mandate has become outdated in an era of abundant kids’ shows on cable and online.

The Federal Communications Commission is to vote July 10 on allowing children’s programming to be shown an hour earlier, at 6 a.m., and for a portion of required fare to appear on secondary digital channels rather than the main channel seen by most viewers. Critics said such changes would undermine the goal of ensuring availability of three hours of educational children’s programming weekly.

Broadcasters such as CBS, Fox, and Comcast’s NBC lobbied for looser rules.

“This update of our rules is long overdue,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who leads the Republican majority at the agency, said in a blog post Tuesday.

At issue is a 1996 requirement for TV broadcasters to present an average of three hours weekly of programming designed to educate children, on a regularly scheduled basis between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Under the proposed changes, one-third of the required hours could appear on secondary digital channels that broadcasters have created.

Broadcasters told the FCC they want flexibility.

Children’s TV rules “are still mired in the bygone era of appointment viewing” of broadcast TV, the National Association of Broadcasters, a trade group, said in a filing. Cable has increased its penetration of households and offers hundreds, rather than dozens, of channels, while broadband services offer online video options, the broadcasters’ association said.

Public-interest groups, such as the Center for Digital Democracy and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, opposed the changes. Almost 16 million households rely exclusively on over-the-air broadcasting, they said in a filing to the FCC.

“The FCC’s assumption that children’s television guidelines are no longer necessary because programming is available on other platforms is simply wrong,” the groups said. “Many families, especially low-income families and families in rural areas cannot access or afford alternative program options” available on cable and online.