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Sesame Street, YouTube

8 Complaints to the FCC About Children's TV

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Sesame Street, YouTube

Anyone can file a TV-related complaint through the Federal Communications Commission. While most of the 11,399 TV complaints received through the Consumer Help Center from December 29, 2014 to May 17, 2015 were about billing issues, 2181 were filed under "Indecency."

We filed a FOIA request to get any complaints filed over the past several years about popular kids' shows like Sesame Street, Yo Gabba Gabba, Dinosaur Train, Dora the Explorer, Phineas and Ferb, and Arthur. By far, the most common target was Sesame Street, followed closely by a number of complaints about advertisements shown during children's programming. Below are some of the complaints we received. Some are perfectly reasonable. Others are bizarre.

1. "I am oppalled by this"

Sesame Street often parodies pop culture, but one person believed the show took it too far when they ran a segment on Fifty Shades of Grey. The complaint, filed February 19, 2014, read:

Sesame St referenced Fifty Shades of Gray book in the episode. Calling the book fifty shades of oatmeal. Then saying it was really steamy stuff! I am oppalled by this! I have never heard them reference the Bible but they can reference this book that is clearly meant for ADULTS. This is a children’s show. I am extremely disappointed.

2. "I am not sure why this is being marketing to my 6 year old"

On November 14, 2011, one enraged parent sent the following complaint:

In-between episodes of Phineas & Ferb CARTOON ON A DISNEY CHANNEL there was an advertisement for Pure Romace parties which I know to be a company that sells sex toys and other sexual enhancement products (among other things.) I am not sure why this is being marketing to my 6 year old. It would be unfortunate for kids to be visiting this companies web site after watching A CARTOON ON A DISNEY CHANNEL!

3. I'll Get Right to the Point

One Sesame Street complaint filed on January 25, 2011, said simply, “Big birds offend me.”

4. "What is better with springs?"

“Several times during the day on the DisneyHD Channel, there was a commercial show for Sleepy’s for Sealy Posturpedic," a parent wrote to the FCC on March 27, 2011.

In this commercial, it shows in the beginning couples laying back showing satisfaction implying that they just had sex. The words 'better with springs' then shows on the screen with an implied bounce and then again back to the satisfied couples. I believe that this is an inappropriate commercial for this ‘kid based’ channel. My eleven year old boy at first didn’t get the commercial, but when he did he thought that it was gross. I can imagine younger children after seeing this commercial and putting their parents on the spot by asking ‘what is better with springs’ and ‘why are those people acting like that?’ This commercial should be removed from this type of audience and kept to prime time.

5. "A gross lack of judgement"

Who is in charge of these commercial breaks?

During a commercial break between Dora and SpongeBob, Nick aired a commercial for the adult company Adam and Eve," the person who filed this complaint on January 6, 2012 wrote. "While I am not against Adam & Eve, the airing of an adult sex toy commercial on a kids network (in the middle of the day while my kids were watching) shows a gross lack of judgement.

6. "THIS SUCKS"

This "concerned mother, grandmother AND daycare provider" was alarmed enough by the language in a Honda commercial—which her charges parroted back—to file a complaint both with the FCC (on September 30, 2013) and with Honda:

Good Morning,
I run a daycare out of my house, and I frequently allow the children to watch programs on the Nickelodeon channel. On this particular morning, while watching a program with the children, a Honda minivan commercial came on. This particular commercial shows the new Honda minivan with a built in vacuum. There are some talking toys in the commercial. One of the toys says THIS SUCKS and to my dis-belief, the 4 children watching the program all said in unison THIS SUCKS.
Now I understand what is going on in the commercial, but it was extremely difficult for me to inform the children’s parents what they over heard, especially on a family type of channel. More precisely, a children’s channel. I did call Honda and voiced my concern. They informed me that my complaint has been logged and to have a nice day.
Concerned Mother, grandmother AND daycare provider.”

7. "Unfortunately my young sons were watching it"

Sesame Street’s flying fairy program promoted homosexuality. In the program, the girl’s kiss didn’t wake up the sleeping boy fairy, so a boy kissed him and woke him up. Unfortunately my young sons were watching it.

The “flying fairy program” referenced in this complaint, filed on July 4, 2011, is Abby’s Flying Fairy School, a Sesame Street segment designed to teach kids about how to solve problems using logic and reasoning.

8. "AMERICA IS SLOWLY TURNING INTO A THIRD WORLD COUNTRY"

“PLEASE DO NOT ALLOW SESAME STREET TO GO AWAY AND DO NOT ALLOW THAT HATEMONGER WHO WANTS TO TAKE OVER THE STATION’S TIME SLOTS TO PREVAIL. THIS IS AN OUTRAGE. AMERICA IS SLOWLY TURNING INTO A THIRD WORLD COUNTRY.”

This comment was sent in on May 6, 2011—long before Romney's infamous "Big Bird" comment during the 2012 election season about cutting funding for PBS. But politicians have been talking about cutting government spending on public broadcasting for years, so this writer could have been referencing any number of people. Or something else entirely. It's hard to know. 

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Big Questions
When Did the Do Not Call List Stop Working?
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There was once a time when picking up a call from an unfamiliar number didn’t guarantee you’d be talking to a robot. For several years following its introduction in 2003, the Do Not Call list successfully sheltered individuals from unwanted calls about gym memberships and cheap travel packages. Companies respected the list, and if they didn’t, they faced legal ramifications.

Then, at the turn of the decade, something changed. Telemarketing scams began trickling through the cracks, and today the Do Not Call list is about as effective as a free cruise offered over the phone is free.

So what happened? It may not be evident to current members, but the National Do Not Call Registry does work—with some numbers, at least. According to the Do-Not-Call Implementation Act, telemarketers (excluding surveyors, politicians, and charities) can be fined up to $40,000 for ignoring the list. So when it comes to calls from legitimate, law-abiding businesses within the U.S., the Do Not Call list is a useful barrier. Problems arise when callers never intend to follow the law in the first place.

Around 2010, the same time the internet made international calls a lot less expensive, phone scammers began relocating outside the U.S. Whether they’re calling from India or Jamaica, voice over internet protocol technology makes spamming numbers with prerecorded messages cheap and easy. Another trick, known as "call spoofing," allows frauds to input fake caller IDs to make it seem like they’re calling from within the country. Some telemarketers even go so far as to call from the recipient’s home area code, leading the person on the receiving end to think it’s someone they know.

“It’s difficult to identify who’s actually placing the call because of the call spoofing,” Maureen Mahoney, a public policy fellow for Consumers Union’s End Robocalls campaign, tells Mental Floss. “So that also makes it difficult to track these people down.” Even when authorities do catch up to operations working in foreign countries, most of the money scammed from consumers has already been spent. It’s no wonder that the U.S. loses billions of dollars to scam calls each year.

Phone owners are well aware of the problem. “We actually sent out an email to our list asking what’s one of the issues you’re most concerned about, and overwhelmingly the response was robocalls,” Mahoney says. Consumers Union took action by launching their campaign to end robocalls in 2015. Instead of going after lawmakers, who often receive the brunt of the public’s blame, the initiative targets phone companies. A petition on the organization's website calls on phone company CEOs to “provide free tools to block unwanted robocalls before they reach my phone.”

“We really believe that the phone companies are in the best position to address the problem,” Mahoney says. “They’re the ones with the best engineers and the technology and the know-how.” Some industry leaders have taken steps to tackle the issue. Time Warner customers have the option to sign up for Nomorobo, a service that blocks illegal robocalls, for free. AT&T made a similar option available for select devices in December, and T-Mobile rolled out a robocall-blocking feature of its own in April. But there are still many companies that have no such resources available, or only offer them at an additional cost.

If electing to block robocalls through your service provider is impossible or impractical for you, there are other ways to protect yourself. When an unknown number lights up your screen, don’t pick up. Sometimes a “hello?” is all the information telemarketers need to confirm you’re a living human being who is worth calling again. If you do decide to answer, don’t be afraid to hang up as soon as things start feeling fishy. Staying on the phone gives scammers more opportunities to squeeze information from you, so even asking to be taken off their list is more trouble than it’s worth.

One of the most notorious scams to look out for today is the IRS phone scam. To trick their victims, callers (sometimes calling from a bogus Washington D.C. area code) will say they work for the IRS and demand to be paid immediately. Americans have been cheated out of tens of millions of dollars as a result of this scheme.

Mahoney also warns consumers to be wary of calls claiming to come from card services (“We can offer you a lower interest rate!”), tech support (“We can fix your computer!”), and even your phone company (“You need to pay your bills! Could we have your card information?”). Even if you suspect the call's legitimate, it's always best to end the conversation and call back using a number you trust. “If someone’s asking for your personal or financial information, hang up the phone right away,” Mahoney says. “Report it to the FCC.” You can contact the Federal Communications Commission with your complaints here.

We already know that the Do Not Call Registry alone isn’t enough to keep telemarketers at bay, but it doesn’t hurt to keep your name on the list—even if all it does is cut down the amount of robo-harassment you receive each week by a call or two.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Why Saturday Morning Cartoons Announced They'd "Be Back After These Messages"

Ever wonder why commercial blocks during the Saturday morning cartoon (R.I.P.) timeslot had bumpers with weird animated creatures announcing that “After these messages, we’ll be right back?” Blame it on the FCC and the Action for Children’s Television (ACT) non-profit.

In 1970, ACT drafted several proposals for the FCC to improve the state of children’s programming. Along with increasing the educational value of TV shows and mandating that broadcast networks provide at least 14 hours of child-appropriate television per week, ACT also demanded the removal of all commercials.

Obviously, advertisers and broadcasters weren’t entirely on board. However, in 1974, the FCC conducted an inquiry into children’s programming and advertising and published the Children’s Television Report and Policy Statement (“1974 Policy Statement”) issuing their own set of standards. One of these was that television programming must be clearly separated from commercials because “children ‘cannot distinguish conceptually between programming and advertising’” [PDF].  

The FCC didn’t regulate what the bumpers were, and the 1979 study “Program/Commercial Separators in Children’s Television Programming” published in the Journal of Communication noted “that the networks have no consensus among themselves regarding what constitutes a ‘clear separation’ technique.” The study also found that the separators added to the confusion, and children had an easier time recognizing commercial breaks without them.

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