FCC to Fine Univision $24 Million for Lacking Children's Programming

The nation's largest Spanish-language broadcaster has agreed to a record $24 million fine for failing to meet government rules for educational children's programming, a Federal Communications Commission official said Saturday.

The penalty is part of a consent decree that would pave the way for Univision Communications Inc. (UNV) to complete its $12.3 billion sale to private investors.

The decree awaits approval by a majority of the agency's five commissioners. The chairman, Kevin J. Martin, told The New York Times he supported it.

The fine is part of a deal that would transfer Univision's broadcast licenses to the investors. A vote could come at any time, said the agency official who confirmed the fine, which Martin first disclosed to the newspaper. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the commission has yet to vote.

Messages left at Univision's New York and Miami offices were not immediately returned Saturday.

The previous record fine was $9 million, against the telecommunications company Qwest Communications International Inc.(Q) in 2004. The penalty was for failing to disclose business relationships with local competitors.

Martin told the Times he thought "consumers are better served by less regulation, not more." But, he added, he thought the commission "has a key role to play in some areas, such as children's television, and I take those obligations seriously."

The penalty involves charges that 24 Univision stations between 2004 and early 2006 circumvented guidelines on airing educational children's programs by running soap operas aimed mainly at adults.

Under a 1996 law, television broadcasters are required to air at least three hours a week of educational shows for children.

Univision had maintained that it met those requirements by broadcasting several telenovelas, or soap operas. They included "Complices al Rescate," which followed 11-year-old identical twin girls who switched identities after finding out they had been separated at birth.

"A significant purpose and key educational objective of this program is to illustrate how friendship, love and kindness can help overcome life's adversities," the network's lawyers said in court papers.

Martin said the FCC was unconvinced. Critics said the show featured adult plots and complex themes that were ill-suited for young children.