New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jun 19, 2013
LOS ANGELES >> One year ago, the Walt Disney Co. unveiled a strict new set of nutritional standards and said it would ban ads for noncompliant foods from its child-focused cable channels by 2015. Advocacy groups fighting childhood obesity cheered.
And then they shifted their focus to Nickelodeon, the country's other major children's programmer. Exactly when would it be following Disney's lead?
The answer appears to be never - not only because doing so could hurt Nickelodeon's bottom line but also because the children's cable behemoth may have taken enough steps to blunt the attacks.
Despite continued pressure on Nickelodeon to restrict ads for products like Trix and Cocoa Puffs - four U.S. senators renewed the pleas in a letter to the company last week - the Viacom-owned network has remained defiant. Nutritional standards, it contends, must be decided by regulators and food companies, not Hollywood.
"As an entertainment company, Nickelodeon's primary mission is to make the highest-quality entertainment content in the world for kids," the company said in a written response to the senators. "That is our expertise. We believe strongly that we must leave the science of nutrition to the experts."
Money, of course, is a significant factor. Food advertising on Nickelodeon has fallen 45 percent since 2008, according to the company, partly because of its own efforts to cut back on ads for certain sugary drinks and fatty foods, and partly because of self-regulation by food companies.
But food remains Nickelodeon's third-biggest advertising category (behind movies and toys), accounting for roughly 18 percent of annual sales. At a recent meeting on Capitol Hill, according to legislative aides, Viacom lobbyists reiterated this point and emphasized that their children's networks - Nick, Nick Jr. and TeenNick - were more reliant on advertising than Disney's flagship Disney Channel, which accepts limited sponsorships but does not accept 30-second spots.
Advertisers spend roughly $950 million annually on television tailored to children younger than 12, according to industry estimates. Across all the children's cable channels tracked by Nielsen, the number of food ads was up 16 percent in the first quarter of the year versus the same quarter a year earlier, far outpacing the increase in all advertising, which was 6 percent.
Nickelodeon, which declined to comment for this article, is dug in for other reasons. Its executives believe that critics, in particular the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, have ignored its many efforts to cut down on junk-food ads and promote healthy lifestyles to its viewers.
For years, for instance, Nickelodeon has dedicated 10 percent of its promotional airtime to health and wellness messaging. It has also restricted the licensing of characters like SpongeBob SquarePants on certain junk foods and sent millions of dollars to communities to buy equipment like swing sets, among other initiatives. Once a year, Nickelodeon suspends programming on all of its channels and websites for three hours as part of a program called Worldwide Day of Play.
Against that backdrop, analysts say, some critics are having a harder time painting Nickelodeon as an uncaring corporation peddling junk food to children.
"Nickelodeon is not above reproach by any means," said Dade Hayes, executive editor at the trade publication Broadcasting & Cable, and author of "Anytime Playdate: Inside the Preschool Entertainment Boom." "But they certainly can't be depicted as an evil Philip Morris-type cabal either."
Nevertheless, the pressure on Nickelodeon to take stronger measures has persisted. Last week, four Democratic senators - Richard Blumenthal, Richard J. Durbin, Tom Harkin and John D. Rockefeller IV- prodded by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, asked Nickelodeon in a letter to "promptly take similar action" to Disney and "implement strong nutrition standards."
It was hardly a fire-breathing missive, however.
"We applaud the initiatives that Nickelodeon has taken to promote healthy lifestyles for children," the letter said.
Blumenthal said the letter's gentle tone was intentional.
"We want to reason with them," he said. "We want this to be voluntary, even enthusiastic on their part."
Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, conceded that the volume of food ads on Nickelodeon had gone down.
"Things are moving in the right direction," she said. "They're just moving way too slowly."
A study by the center last year found that 69 percent of the food ads on Nickelodeon were for foods deemed unhealthy by the center. In 2005, it was 90 percent.
She dismissed Nickelodeon's assertion that entertainment companies - particularly ones that do not serve food at theme parks and on cruise ships - have no business deciding nutritional standards.
"They can't tell that Airheads candy are unhealthy without having a Ph.D. in nutrition?" she asked. "We're not expecting perfect standards, but we're expecting some standards."
Wootan has shown no interest in letting up, even if some of her rhetoric has seemed excessive at times. In March, for instance, she put out a news release that charged Nickelodeon with "recklessly throwing gasoline on the fire" when it comes to childhood obesity.
At the same time, her organization, in partnership with other advocacy groups, took out a full-page ad in The Hollywood Reporter in the form of an Old West wanted poster. It featured mug shots of a slovenly SpongeBob SquarePants and included the words "Approach with caution! SpongeBob may be armed with nutritionally dangerous foods."