A Discovery Communications and Hasbro announcement on Thursday that they would launch a childen’s cable network showcasing Hasbro toy brands may wave a red flag in front of regulators already worried about TV product placement and embedded advertising.
Leaders of some consumer groups said today that the announcement could intensify an already sharp debate about placement especially in shows seen by large numbers of kids, stepping up the heat on all media companies.
“Hasbro has got to be creating a new toy — ‘Playing With Fire,’” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “The [Federal Communications Communications] already has an open proceeding on embedded advertising. This proposed network raises issues for the children’s market that policy makers are going to have to deal with.”
Discovery and Hasbro deal calls for revamping the Discovery Kids channel into a new network late in 2010.
The companies said that the channel would be geared to boys and girls 14 years of age and under and feature new programming based on some of Hasbro’s products including Romper Room, Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble, Cranium, My Little Pony, G.I. Joe, Game of Life, Tonka and Transformers would air along with some current Discovery Kids favorites and new content. In addition to the cable channel, a web site would offer an expanded content effort.
Hasbro is buying half of Discovery Kids as part of the venture in which analysts suggest is an attempt to compete more broadly with rivals like Disney and Nickelodeon.
The companies said the joint venture “also will participate in merchandising opportunities associated with on-air content.”
Executives of Discovery and Hasbro today called the new channel a “strong new brand for childrens entertainment and education” and officials said the channel would voluntarily air educational and informational programming as well as commercial programming.
That didn’t sway leaders of several consumers groups who suggested the deal would wind up creating program length commercials and flout the spirit if not the exact language of current FCC rules.
The FCC prevents TV spots for a toy keyed to the show from airing on the show itself, and also prevents program length commercials, but the consumer groups contended that whatever it’s been called, the impact of the programs would still be akin to advertising a Hasbro toy to kids, a charge Hasbro and Discovery deny.
“Hasbro’s deal means that the new network will be one long infomercial aimed at children,” said Susan Linn, associate director of the Media Center at Judge Baker Children’s Center and director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood
“As evident from TV programs like the Bratz and others, the FCC doesn’t seem to equate program-length commercials with product placement–but they should. When kids use toys from TV programs and movies they watch their play becomes imitative, not creative.
“Since creative play is the foundation of learning, creativity, self-regulation, problem solving and the capacity to make meaning of life, inundating children with program length commercials for toys does them serious harm.”
Commercial Alert petitioned the FCC to reexamining its rules and managing director Robert Weissman was aghast at the announcement of the deal.
“It’s very hard, to see this as anything but a scheme to deliver program length advertisements to children and a massive loophole in the current rules,” he said. “It sounds like product placement to kids under 12 which is not supposed to exist. It seems an expressed intent to violate existing rules.”
A spokeswoman for the Discovery and Hasbro ridiculed the suggestion that the programs would be one one long ad.
“Our primary focus is to create a successful network that kids want to watch, which requires quality, story-driven content,” she said. “An overly commercialized channel will not be successful in competiting in this space dominated by some very strong players.”