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The Federal Communications Commission regulates television broadcasting. However, the FCC's ability to regulate is limited to three specific areas: restrictions on indecent programming, limiting commercials aired during children's programming and rules concerning political candidates.

"Prime time" is the term for peak television viewing hours-the period of time between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. that attracts the largest television audience. The FCC regulates prime time content. Television shows aired during prime time are rated as discussed below.

Federal law requires broadcast networks to devote a certain amount of airtime to quality children's programming, also known as "core programming." Core programming is designed to serve the educational and informational needs of children 16 years of age and under. Television stations must broadcast three hours of "educational and informational" programming each week under the Children's Television Act of 1990.

How do I know if my child is watching a "core" program?

An announcement at the beginning of the show or an icon means your child is watching core programming.

V-Chip and Ratings

Because many television broadcasts are unsuitable for children, V-chip technology allows parents to block any program they choose. Almost all television shows are "rated" and the V-chip reads the ratings to block the broadcast of shows with certain ratings. Since 2000, the FCC has required V-chips to be built into all televisions with screens 13 inches or larger.

What are the different ratings for television shows?

  • TV-Y (all children)-this is a children's show appropriate for children of all ages;
  • TV-7 (older children)-this is a children's show most appropriate for children age 7 and up;
  • TV-G (general audience)-the show is suitable for all ages but is not necessarily a children's show;
  • TV-PG (parental guidance suggested)-the show may be unsuitable for younger children;
  • TV-14 (parents strongly cautioned)-the show may be unsuitable for children under 14; and
  • TV-MA (mature audience only)-the show may be unsuitable for children under 17.

TIP: Look for additional symbols for further explanation in TV-PG, -14 and -MA shows: V for violence, S for sexual situations, L for language or D for suggestive dialogue.

Are all shows rated?

No. News, sports and unedited movies on premium pay channels (such as HBO) are not required to be rated by the FCC.

I think a show my children are watching is not suitable for their age group and the rating should be changed. Who do I contact?

To complain about the level of rating, write to:

The TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board

P.O. Box 14097

Washington, D.C., 20004

You can also call the Monitoring Board at 202.879.9364 or visit their Web site.

Obscenity and Profanity

Federal law prohibits the broadcasting of obscene, profane or indecent content during certain hours of the day. The most obvious example is the nudity that occurred during the Super Bowl halftime show several years ago. On the other hand, limited nudity on adult prime time shows has been allowed.

Sidebar: Although in some cases, nudity may be an exercise of free speech, the FCC considers many types of conduct obscene, and obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment.

When are indecent broadcasts prohibited?

Between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., broadcasters are subject to FCC rules prohibiting indecency on television and radio.

TIP: Profane speech is also prohibited during this time period.

Why is a topic considered indecent on one broadcast but is permissible on another?

The FCC considers indecency in the context of the broadcast. Health programming relating to sexuality may not be indecent. On the other hand, the same discussion on a prime time sitcom may violate FCC rules.

TIP: Typically, daytime talk shows aimed at women are given a longer leash than other types of broadcasting. For example, photographs of before and after breast enhancement surgery on "The View" does not violate any rules; whereas similar photographs aired for comic relief during a sitcom are probably indecent.

What type of language is considered profanity?

Profanity is "grossly offensive" language. The FCC recently ruled that the "F-word" spoken during a Golden Globes telecast amounted to profanity. However, language such as "ass," "bitch" and "bastard" is regularly allowed in some programming in the right context (a police drama, for example).

How do I file a complaint with the FCC about obscenity or indecency on the radio or television?

You may file a complaint via e-mail at fccinfo@fcc.gov or by calling 1.888.CALL.FCC (1.888.225.5322).

Closed Captioning

Persons with hearing disabilities can view the audio portion of a broadcast as text at the bottom of their television screen through closed captioning. All new programming (since 1998) must be formatted for closed captioning display. The ability to view captions is built into television sets, as required by the FCC. Because the broadcast itself and the television are formatted for closed captioning, the service is available to anyone at no cost.

Cable Companies

Cable television operators are broadcasters that can choose what programming they want to offer to the public and how it is packaged. Typically, a wide variety of programming is offered to appeal to a broad spectrum of viewers. With the exception of local broadcasts, which federal law requires cable companies to carry, the operator may change the mix of stations and programming at any time.

Cable rates are complicated. Some company's rates are regulated; small cable companies may have no rate regulation. Cities are supposed to retain the authority to set rates for the cable company with which they contract, but depending on the amount of competition or services, rates may not be regulated at all.

Importantly, rates for only the basic tier (local broadcast, public, educational and government channels) of service are regulated. Cable rates are not regulated for services that include programming beyond the basic tier.

How do I file a complaint about my cable company?

Complaints about rates or service should be directed to the city, municipality or county that is doing business with the cable company. These governmental entities are known as local franchising authorities (LFAs).

TIP: The name of the franchising authority should be on your cable bill.

Satellite Television

Satellite television is an alternative to cable television. The programming is broadcast between satellites and satellite dishes on the viewer's property. Satellite television has the advantage of availability-even the most rural of places can receive satellite television. It also gives the viewer access to a much wider variety of programming (depending on the provider) from around the world.

Advertising on Television

If commercials during a television show seem much louder than the show itself, it is because they are. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does not regulate the volume of programs or commercials. To lessen the impact of loud commercials, certain electronic devices are available that minimize the effect. Some of these devices include audio filters, audio expanders and audio compressors. You can find out more information about these devices at your local electronics store.

Children of all ages are highly sought out by advertisers. Parents can avoid a child's exposure to commercials by having the child watch commercial-free programming, such as their local public broadcasting station (PBS) affiliate.

Children's programming seems saturated with commercials. Are their any limitations to advertising during children's shows?

Yes. The FCC's rules limit advertising time during children's programming to 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays.