Concerned that a steady diet of TV ads is putting too many pounds on American children, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission plans to study links between the ads, viewing habits and the rise of childhood obesity.

Earlier in September, the Washington-based Institute of Medicine found that one-third of U.S. children are either obese or at risk for becoming obese. At the same time, American companies spend about $15 billion US a year marketing and advertising to children under age 12.

"Small children can't weed out the marketing messages from their favorite shows — especially when the marketing campaigns feature favorite TV characters like SpongeBob or Scooby-Doo," FCC chairman Kevin Martin said at a news conference in Washingtonon Wednesday.

Martin cited reports showing the average child watches two to four hours of TV per day and views about 40,000 TV ads every year, most of them for cereal, candy, toys and fast food.

Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, said he urged the commission to form the task force, which will include FCC officials, members of the food, television and advertising industries, consumer advocacy groups and health experts.

"Judging by the sheer volume of media and advertising that children consume on a daily basis, and given alarming trends in childhood obesity, we're facing a public health problem that will only get worse unless we take action," Brownback said.

Not likely tototally ban ads

The task force will begin meeting early in 2007 and issue a report with recommendations on how industry and media can work to reduce the childhood obesity rate.

Some children's advocacy groups have called for a ban on junk food marketing to children, but Brownback and Martin said they want to reach common ground with advertisers instead of creating new regulations.

"If we start down the road of saying we're going to limit everything and we're going to do it with a regulatory regime, I think you get everybody in a quick adversarial relationship," Brownback said.

He said a number of food companies have indicated they want to work with government to help address the issue, though none attended the press conference on Wednesday.

"We urge their participation and we would love to have them participate in the process," Brownback said.

Groups already involved with the task force include the Sesame Workshop, Walt Disney Co., and the Parents Television Council, a conservative media watchdog group.