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In its Annual Letter to Stockholders this year, Viacom, a leading global entertainment company that owns over 160 networks including Nickelodeon, boasts about its methods for delivering profits.

The letter states, “As always, we aggressively pursue every sensible opportunity to monetize our media networks, through advertising, distribution, and consumer products. Although television ratings ebb and flow, our investment in content keeps our brands strong and vital for advertisers seeking our highly targeted audiences and for distributors developing their product offerings”. The sentence that really grabbed my attention was “As we continue to invest in great content, Viacom will continue to seize on every opportunity to monetize that programming on every screen.” And that’s what they are doing – seizing every opportunity to make money in exchange for our children’s health.

Viacom “monetizes its media networks” through advertising and character licensing and one of its “highly targeted audiences” is our children. Many of the ads that Viacom accepts and the products that feature its characters promote for foods and beverages with high amounts of sugar, saturated fat, or sodium and these messages undermine what every parent wants: to raise a healthy child.

In a report just released by our group at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, we document the channels and programs where children see unhealthy food and beverage advertising on TV. The findings surprised us. Even though most companies participating in self-regulation (Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, or CFBAI) say they do not advertise to very young children; 2- to 5-year-olds see an average of more than 11 food ads per day, and one out of ten of those ads appear on just one show – Nickelodeon’s Spongebob Squarepants, owned and operated by Viacom. In fact, Viacom is responsible for more food advertising than any other media company – almost half of all food ads viewed by youth under 18.

Media companies may not believe they have a role to play in addressing junk food marketing to kids. After all, they don’t manufacture the products and they don’t create the ads, right? However, as we consider what needs to be done to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic, the first thing that comes to my mind is the African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child." Like the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity concluded, everyone, including the food and entertainment industries, government, media, schools and local communities, must work together to create a healthy environment for children.

One media company understands this well. Over the summer Disney announced that food advertised to children on its many media platforms will have to meet new, healthier standards. The new guidelines go into effect by 2015 and are designed to promote the consumption of fruits and vegetables and to reduce the intake of sodium, sugar, and saturated fat.

Viacom should follow Disney’s lead in its decision to support better choices for families by setting better nutrition standards for food advertising during its children’s programs and products that can feature its licensed characters, like Spongebob. “The emotional connection kids have to our characters and stories gives us a unique opportunity to continue to inspire and encourage them to lead healthier lives,” said Roger Iger, Disney’s Chairman and CEO. Disney
knows media companies can make money for their stockholders and be socially responsible by supporting kids and parents in their effort to make healthier choices. Why can’t Viacom do the same? To take action visit:

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