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Policy / DCN perspectives on policy, law, and legislative news surrounding digital content

Kids digital video is a perilous place and regulation may not be keeping pace

July 11, 2019 | By Bryson Masse – Independent Journalist @Bryson_M

As children’s digital content consumption has come under the microscope and parents are realizing the extent to which popular online video services fall short of their expectations, federal regulators have voted to take away some of the guarantees protecting traditional sources of educational media. At the same time, others are calling on the Senate to leverage COPPA to reign in platforms’ approach to digital video and to enact new legislation to better keep pace with the rapidly evolving digital video marketplace. Clearly, the industry is at a crossroads and children are increasingly dodging traffic in the form of data collection, ad targeting, and unconscionable content—all of which would be unthinkable in the carefully moderated world of kids TV. 

Unsurprisingly, YouTube is often found in the crosshairs when talking about objectionable digital experiences for kids. With issues stemming from lackluster privacy protections enabling extensive collection of childrens’ data to recommendations algorithms pitching inappropriate videos, the video social media network faces pressure from the Federal Trade Commission to turn around its platform. One idea from the company is to double down on its YouTube for Kids platform and effectively quarantine kids content from the rest of the site. However, to date, that approach has had some significant problems of its own. 

Of course, it’s easy to see why parents like the service: It’s got tons of available content, it’s easy to find, and probably most appealing of all, the large majority of it is free.

Other services, from new market entries to the larger video services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video (as well as upcoming competitors like Disney+), to traditional media networks have implemented features to better safeguard children. Companies like SuperAwesome are developing video platforms that take the risk out of kids content online for parents and advertisers. And Superawesome demonstrates the level of interest in this space, having raised $13 million in funding earlier this year, led by Harbert European Growth Capital. It was also ranked one of the U.K.’s fastest growing companies. 

What’s changed

While YouTube holds great appeal and attracts massive audiences, it has yet to unseat one medium that has been guided by rules to protect children’s content for almost 30 years. That would be broadcast television. “It’s certainly the most powerful way to reach the biggest audience. You know, the demise of linear TV has been greatly exaggerated,” says Harold Chizick CEO of Chizcomm and Beacon, the largest media buyer in the children’s programming sector. 

While the digital offerings from content companies are more robust than ever, and kids end up watching on more screens, Chizick says that there is a key difference: cowatching. Parents and kids are more able to catch content together when it’s on a larger screen where broadcast TV is usually found.

Additionally, the advertising industry has taken advantage of the dearth of younger eyes. And, in practice, kids end up not being able to avoid targeting technology that leverages collected personal information. That’s challenging as there additional protections for kids and their data under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) which advocates say the federal government is not doing enough to enforce

Kid Vid

Although the online kids programming business doesn’t necessarily feel ready for prime time, the Federal Communication Commission voted this week to change the rules and regulations surrounding “Kid Vid” or the broadcast licensing requirements of children’s programming called. The changes were originally larger in scope when first proposed by Republican commissioner Mike O’Rielly last winter, in a vote of three to two among the commissioners, the FCC decided to enact an earlier start time for the programming (6 a.m. instead of 7 a.m.), removal of a mandatory 30 minute length for individual programs, and a reduction in reporting requirements for the broadcasters. Broadcasters will still need to air at least three hours a week of educational and informative content.

These changes make sense because broadcast stations need more flexibility to air other important content like local news and coverage of community events, as O’Rielly said in an op-ed at The Hill. As well, encroaching modernity has heralded the shift from linear TV to digital options meaning the burden of regulations falls only on part of the industry. “Notwithstanding this extensive competition in the video marketplace, local broadcasters are the only ones forced to operate under our Kid Vid rules,” he wrote.

In her dissenting opinion, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said that she was concerned about the reliance on algorithmic recommendations for kids who watch content online. “This [proposal] follows on the heels of reports that automatic recommendation systems can present disturbing videos on the screen, one after the other. As a mother, I am not at ease when my kids before the computer and rely on algorithms to deliver their next video,” said Rosenworcel during arguments before the vote.

Modern regulation

Early on, the changes to Kid Vid had children’s programming advocates—and more recently a group of Senate Democrats—concerned. “The FCC’s assumption that children’s television guidelines are no longer necessary because programming is available on other platforms is simply wrong,” as three children’s television groups said in a fall 2018 filing to the FCC. “To obtain access to non-broadcast programming, households must have access to cable or broadband service, and be able to afford subscription fees and equipment. Many families, especially low-income families and families in rural areas, cannot access or afford alternative program options.” 

Christopher Terry, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication agrees. In a phone call, Terry levied criticism at the shifting motivation behind the changes. Originally proposed as a first amendment issue in 2018, he said that was unlikely to fly due to the fact that the FCC has full mandate to regulate the content found on broadcast channel as licensing conditions. The reframing of the changes as a competition problem in an era of changing viewing habits, only came later. Even then, Terry questions who is actually benefiting from more competition. 

“There is absolutely no upside for the people who use this programming in this proposal,” says Terry. “The only people who benefit from this is the FCC—they’ve got less paperwork to deal with—and the companies that are going to have more opportunities to figure out ways to get around this.”

With the FCC’s new rules moving forward nonetheless, the need for mature, responsible online platforms for kids content delivery is more critical than ever. Regulators want people to embrace the new online platforms, so there should be a destination which protects the interests of kids and their parents equally as any bottom line.