WASHINGTON -- Federal regulators are putting television stations on notice: Contrary to the past practice of many broadcasters, cartoons like "The Jetsons" and "The Flintstones" can no longer count as "educational and informational" programming.
The announcement, issued Tuesday by the Federal Communications Commission, may not come as news to parents, whose households are in undated with cartoon turtles, rabbits and robots.
But it could prove upsetting to broadcasters, who are required by a law enacted in 1990 to demonstrate their commitment to TC the educational needs of children as a condition of renewing their lucrative licenses every five years.
Providing further evidence of a new approach, the agency has in recent weeks delayed renewing the licenses of seven stations, demanding that they provide better evidence that they were meeting their educational responsibilities in children's programming. The stations are in Ohio and Michigan.
Taken together, the actions mark a sharp departure from the commission's reluctance during the Bush administration to impose strict regulation. Under Alfred C. Sikes, who resigned as chairman of the FCC the day before President Clinton took office, agency officials had argued that the law is so vague that stations were well within their rights to say that shows like "Leave It To Beaver" were educational.
The 1990 law, known as the Children's Television Act, is notoriously vague, and some television stations have tried to fill the bill by citing the educational value of "G.I. Joe," "Superboy" and reruns of old favorites such as "Leave It To Beaver."
One station listed "Leave It to Beaver" as educational programming, explaining "Eddie misunderstands Wally's help to girlfriend, Cindy, and confronts Wally with his fist. Communication and trust are shown in this episode."
Another cited a Yogi Bear cartoon as educational programming, saying "Snag learns that he can capture the bank-robbing cockroach more successfully by using his head rather than his muscles."
The commission's announcement of its tough new line comes one week before a congressional committee is to hold a hearing on whether broadcasters are trying to skirt the educational requirements.
The FCC has the authority under the 1990 law to impose the new rules, though the final form will probably emerge in about a year, after the FCC receives public comment.
In a notice proposing stricter rules, the agency said there has been "little change" in the amount of children's programming since the law was passed, and it criticized attempts to label "G.I. Joe" and "The Flintstones" as educational.
"We do not believe that this level of performance is, in the long term, consistent with the objectives" of the law, the agency said.
The commission also said that television stations should only be able to cite programs that were primarily meant for education, rather than entertainment shows that happen to include a pleasant social theme. And it asked for comment on whether it should decide how much educational programming constitutes a bare minimum for satisfying the law.
Advocates for stricter requirements in support of children's programming said the FCC's notice marks a potentially important change. "I think it's a good sign," said Kathryn Montgomery, co-director of the Center for Media Education, a not-for-profit organization in Washington that has called for tougher enforcement.
"Broadcasters thought they could just pepper in pro-social moments in their regular cartoons, but that's not going to work anymore."
Lobbyists for the broadcasting industry were far less pleased, however. The National Association of Broadcasters took part in the political negotiations that led to passage of the children's television law, and they endorsed it because it appeared to give them the latitude they felt they needed.
Jeff Baumann, general counsel for the trade group, said he was alarmed because the FCC hinted in its notice that there might be a need to set numerical quotas for the amount of educational programming a station must run to keep its license.
"We are surprised that the commission would even consider turning back the clock to the 1970s and imposing numerical processing guidelines," he said.