A whole bunch of TV broadcast licensees are in trouble with the FCC for allegedly violating the rules that limit advertising on children’s TV (according to Deadline), and that means this is a good opportunity to learn why TV shows that are very obvious commercials—like, say The Transformers and G.I. Joe, to say nothing of basically every cartoon since the ‘80s—are okay. Or, at least, “okay” in quotes.
It’s all thanks to some decades-old legislation called the Children’s Television Act, which has made it safe for kids to enjoy artistically valid and culturally relevant programming like The Transformers (and, to a lesser extent, G.I. Joe). Among other things, it established regulations that require networks to provide a certain amount of educational programming during regular viewing hours and in regular viewing blocks. It also limited the amount of commercials that can be aired during children’s programming, introduced a requirement that networks clearly delineate between when a show is on and when the ads start (so children can tell the difference), and instituted harsh rules against what’s called a “program-length commercial.”
What that means is that if you’re, say, airing The Transformers—a TV show based on a toy—you cannot also air commercials for Transformers toys, because then it turns the cartoon into an explicit ad… rather than an implicit ad. Not that The Transformers isn’t artistically valid and culturally relevant in its own right, obviously, since the fact that it was made to sell toys seems kind of secondary to the fact that it’s just a good show…. right? (Though The Transformers does predate the Children’s Television Act by a couple of years, so really you should thank it for being such an obvious commercial that kids today are subjected to fewer commercials.)
Unfortunately for the children of America, a bunch of TV stations in the last few years “inadvertently” aired commercials for Hot Wheels toys during the Team Hot Wheels cartoon—the thing you’re not supposed to do!—and only came clean about in 2020 because they were trying to renew their broadcast licenses. The majority of the stations involved (85 of them) are owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group (remember them?), with all but one of those stations airing the Hot Wheels ad 11 times during eight broadcasts of the Hot Wheels cartoon over the course of a few months.
The other broadcasting companies involved are Nexstar, Cunningham, Deerfield Media, CoCom Media Of Illinois, HSH, Manhan Media, Mercury Broadcasting, Mitts Telecasting Col, MPS Media, Nashville License Holdings, New Age Media, Second Generation Of Iowa, Waitt Broadcasting, and WTVH License Inc.. The FCC has proposed a total of $3.4 million in fines, with $2.6 million of it coming from the Sinclair networks alone.
Of course, the damage is already done and there are kids out there now who probably think of Hot Wheels toys when they watch the Team Hot Wheels cartoon because they saw a commercial connecting the two. We can only hope that the show, like The Transformers, is good enough on its own that those kids don’t grow up with an inability to differentiate between quality entertainment and content that was just successfully advertised to them. Otherwise they might become adults who can’t help but insist that the show they liked as kids was actually good and not that they just liked the toys associated with it.