Challenging television networks to put as much effort into educational children's programming as they do in developing dramas about the Menendez brothers or Amy Fisher, a congressional subcommittee yesterday escalated its crusade to improve kids' TV.
And, if the networks don't start complying with the Children's Television Act on their own, the government is going to make them.
So warned a subcommittee chaired by Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., during yesterday's hearing on the TV industry's compliance with the 1991 legislation. The act requires broadcasters to "serve the educational and informational needs of children" and limits the amounts of advertising in children's programming.
The number of ads has dropped, but the dearth of educational programming was called a "disgrace" by Mr. Markey, chair of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance. "We're seeing an almost complete abdication of responsibility by the networks. . . . It's irresponsible and it begs the Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to make sure that they do serve the children of this country."
Mr. Markey and other members of the panel threatened to ask the FCC to make the networks set aside at least one hour a day for educational children's programming -- a mandate the networks have fought vigorously, saying children won't watch such fare and that the networks will lose millions of dollars. (The FCC has scheduled a June 28 hearing on whether to require networks and local stations to air certain amounts of such programming daily.)
Feud has been brewing
Since the Children's Television Act went into effect, Congress and the TV networks have squared off in several high-profile battles. It was at a hearing of Mr. Markey's subcommittee last year that the TV industry practice of labeling shows like "G.I. Joe" and "The Jetsons" as educational was exposed. The goal of that practice was to give the appearance of compliance with the act.
Never before has Mr. Markey's subcommittee appeared so unified or battle-ready, though. Partisan bickering has subsided and the stakes have escalated. Mr. Markey not only warned of a mandated amount of educational programming, he also threatened to use his subcommittee, which serves as the gatekeeper for legislation shaping the information superhighway, to punish the networks financially if they don't improve children's TV.
As they have done in the past, network executives from Fox and NBC yesterday defended their children's programming and promised to do better, saying there was no need for more regulation from Congress and the FCC. But ABC and CBS -- the two worst offenders by nature of providing the least amount of educational programming -- did not even bother to attend the hearing.
"We are constantly being told that children's TV is going to improve, if Congress just gives the industry a bit more time," said Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "I have to tell you that to me the bottom line in this country of what we need is to have the television networks put as much time into children's TV as they do in putting together shows about the Menendez brothers or Amy Fisher.
"If you put effort into putting good shows together, coming up with good time slots and promoting those shows, we know that Americanyoungsters will watch them. But that effort is not being put into children's TV," Mr. Wyden added.
It's more than just a lack of effort that's responsible for the wasteland of kids' TV, experts said yesterday. A study from the Center for Media Education, in Washington, noted that the networks and local stations are actively discriminating against educational programming by scheduling such shows at 5 a.m. or 5:30 a.m., before children are awake.
"By scheduling programs when most children can't see them and by failing to provide adequate promotion and financial support, broadcasters are treating these programs as second-class citizens," the center's report says.
Kathryn Montgomery, president of the center, further charged yesterday that the good time periods -- such as 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Saturday-- are going to shows with tie-ins to toy-makers and other merchandisers. In other words, they carry with them a built-in guarantee of millions of advertising dollars. These are often the most violent shows and those with the least educational value -- such as Fox TV's "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers."
" 'Sonic the Hedgehog' doesn't make it because it's a good program. It makes it because Sega is willing to put in extra dollars for advertising and promotion," Squire Rushnell, the former president of children's programming at ABC, is quoted as saying in the center's report.
"The million-dollar deals that the toy companies make to get their shows on at desirable time periods raise disturbing questions about who is really setting the agenda for what America's children will see over the public airwaves," Ms. Montgomery said.
"As a step-parent and a grandparent, just as an American, I don't need a report to tell me that there's something very wrong with the quality of children's programming in this country," said Rep. Lynn Schenk, D-Calif. "All any one of us has to do is take a glance at the television set as children are sitting in front of it during after-school hours or on Saturday morning."
The criticism on kids' TV came from both sides of the aisle yesterday.
"We're not speaking today as Democrats or Republicans, we're really sitting here as a panel of parents. And I can tell you as a parent there's a void . . . and something's got to be done," said Rep. Jack Fields, R-Texas, the ranking minority member.
According to statistics presented by Mr. Markey, the number of hours each week of educational children's programs has fallen from an average of 11 hours per network in 1980 to one hour and 45 minutes per network in 1990. That figure -- the result of deregulation -- was one of the key factors in the passage of the Children's Television Act, Mr. Markey said.
In the two years that the act has been in effect, the per-network average has risen to only two hours and 15 minutes, according to the subcommittee's statistics.
"Even at two hours and 15 minutes, it's still a disgrace," Mr. Markey said. "Last year I said that children's television was the video equivalent of a Twinkie. This year the Twinkie is served with an occasional vitamin, but most children's television today remains the equivalent of a trip to Toys-R-Us."