A good measure of the “softness” of a regulatory action is the warm reception of the decision by the regulated.

The long awaited draft children’s TV standards are a perfect example.

These have been coming for sometime, over a year in fact: the 2007 Federal election intervened, but the decision making process at the main regulator, ACMA, doesn’t exactly sprint with the best.

Yesterday they produced the draft standards, which will be available for comment, and then there will be further discussion before a final draft is produced, hopefully in 2009.

The new standards are a year late.

Many family and other groups saw them as a sell-out to the commercial TV and fast food industry.

The decision has prompted an avalanche of criticism from health and community groups, who have been lobbying the Australian Communications and Media Authority for more than two years to ban the promotion of junk food to children on television.

Effectively, there are minor changes proposed to the existing regulations (which are around 18 years old), so it’s no wonder FreeTV Australia, the commercial TV lobby group was happy:

Free TV Australia notes the release of the Australian Communications & Media Authority’s (ACMA) Review of the Children’s Television Standards (CTS).

“The report is the result of a comprehensive review and consultation by the ACMA,” said Julie Flynn, CEO of Free TV Australia.

“Free TV welcomes moves by the ACMA to provide more flexibility in scheduling children’s programs.”

The ACMA’s review also determined that bans on the advertising of food to children are not warranted.

“It is encouraging that the ACMA has taken an evidence-based approach to considering the issue of food and beverage advertising to children. The evidence clearly does not support a regulatory approach which includes banning advertising,” said Ms Flynn.

The ACMA report makes other recommendations in relation to the regulation of food and beverage advertising which we will give careful consideration.

Free TV will actively participate in the next phase of the review.

So what did ACMA decide? A few fiddles at the margin really.

“ACMA’s draft standards are informed by a significant body of commissioned research, review and analysis of available data, detailed economic modelling and its consideration of public submissions,” said Chris Chapman, ACMA Chairman in a statement yesterday.

‘‘The draft standards are designed to ensure that Australian children continue to be catered for in free-to-air television programming and to protect children from material that may be harmful to them. This is a particularly important, high profile issue and we would expect, and welcome, robust commentary…..

Australia is unique in the world in mandating quotas for children’s programs on free-to-air television. The current standards also contain a range of restrictions on advertising to children, including a complete ban on advertising during preschool (“P”) programs.

ACMA is also proposing to strengthen certain provisions regulating advertising to children. These proposals would further restrict the use of licensed characters, popular personalities and celebrities to promote and endorse products immediately before, during and after ‘C’ and ‘P’ periods. They would also clarify rules for premium offers, such as toys offered with food and beverage purchases.

Given current community concern, the issue of food and beverage advertising to children and its potential impact on childhood obesity was a core component of the review of the Children’s Television Standards. However at this stage, ACMA is not proposing to introduce general restrictions on food and beverage advertising to children.

“ACMA is not a health advisory body. Therefore, in assessing whether or not a ban on food and beverage advertising would have an impact on childhood obesity, ACMA commissioned an independent review of research on the issue. Childhood obesity is a highly complex issue and the review found that there was not a sufficient consensus on the impact of banning food and beverage advertising on obesity levels,” Mr Chapman said.

“The research does indicate that there is a relationship between advertising and children’s food and beverage preferences and requests. It also indicates a relationship between television viewing (as distinct from television advertising specifically) and obesity in children. However, existing research does not clearly demonstrate a causal relationship between any of these factors and obesity—indeed only a modest association is apparent.

“ACMA has formed the view that restricting food and beverage advertising, particularly without a tool to identify high fat, salt, sugar (HFSS) products, would be a blunt form of regulatory intervention, with significant cost to the commercial television sector and uncertain national benefits. Such restrictions would also prevent healthy food and beverage products from being advertised.”

A number of state governments, including Queensland and South Australia claim to have legal advice to ban junk food advertising in TV. Talk about grandstanding; anything for Queensland Premier Anna Bligh to distract attention from her slowly collapsing Government.

No wonder FreeTV wants to work with ACMA on the final standards and is really happy, deep down.

It realises that the main game is the draft set of new standards governing the rest of Australian TV that ACMA has been reviewing.

They are the main game because they govern what can and can’t be shown, said and in what form in the earning hours of 6 pm to midnight. Remember the stink over Gordon Ramsay’s swear words?

Will we see them before 2010 and the next election?

Peter Fray

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