If someone proposed to solve the problem of children smoking cigarettes by forcing tobacco companies to create new low-nicotine brands especially for children, that person would be ridiculed even in Washington. Yet, if someone proposes to solve the problem of children going brain-dead from watching too much television by dictating federal standards for children's TV, that person is hailed as a social savior.
As the Federal Communications Commission prepares to impose onerous burdens on the nation's broadcasters and cable companies, a re-examination of the Children's Television Act is long overdue.
In 1968, Congress created public broadcasting networks in part to provide educational programming for children and teen-agers. 1990, Congress decided that commercial television stations and networks did not provide enough healthy fare for youngsters and enacted the Children's Television Act to force them to do more.
Though the act threatened license revocations for violators, the law did not define "educational and informational programming." BTC The New York Times noted that the Children's Television Act is "notoriously vague." Congress and the FCC told television stations to jump through the hoops -- but did not tell the broadcasters where the hoops were, how high they were, or in which direction they had to jump.
The Children's Television Act decreed that television programs for kids could not have more than 12 minutes of commercials per hour on weekdays or more than 10.5 minutes of commercials per hour on weekends. The restrictions on ad times may have been " enacted partly to protect the dignity of elected representatives. Sen. Jim Exon, a Nebraska Democrat, complained to his colleagues: "On more than one occasion, my grandchildren, under 4 years of age, have stood up and asked for silence in the room when [the station] went to a commercial."
WTTA of St. Petersburg, Fla., was fined $10,000 for exceeding the official limits for advertisements by 2 1/2 minutes in one hour and by 1 1/2 minutes in another. The FCC delayed renewing the licenses of six television stations last year because the stations had not proved they were providing sufficient broadcast nutrients for children.
It is ironic to read the threatening language of notices from Edythe Wise, chief of the Complaints and Investigations branch of the FCC's Mass Media Bureau's Enforcement Division. In January 1993, chief enforcer Wise informed WTBS (the Turner Broadcasting System Superstation) that it was guilty of 15 seconds too many commercials on a Jan. 14, 1992, broadcast of "Tom and Jerry's Funhouse."
Ms. Wise also pronounced KWGN-TV of Denver guilty of one minute's worth of excessive commercials during broadcasts of "Dennis the Menace" and "Merrie Melodies" between 7 and 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 1992. KITV-TV in Honolulu was pronounced guilty of excessive commercials on a broadcast of the "Bugs & Tweety" show.
The conclusion of most such notices warns: "We hereby ADMONISH you for said violation of our commercial limits. . . . This matter will be made a part of our permanent records."
Should it really be a federal crime if some youngster sees a few seconds less of "Bugs & Tweety"? With the somber air of the FCC notices, one would think that the show "Bugs & Tweety" was some type of religious revelation that broadcasters had a sacred duty to show uncut.
The Children's Television Act makes a mockery of the First Amendment. If Congress and the FCC have a right to dictate that television stations meet certain quotas for children's viewing, then there is no reason why quotas for shows for the elderly, various racial and ethnic groups, and other groups could not also be imposed. If Congress dictated that every book publisher must begin printing and distributing at least 10 children's books each year, this would be widely denounced as oppressive. Yet political power grabs over television provoke surprisingly little controversy.
There are no compulsory attendance laws requiring people to watch television. The basic premise of the law is that children's television is so bad that Congress must intervene. But the restriction on commercials implies that the problem is not the dismal quality of the shows but the fact that children do not see enough of the shows.
Television has numerous adverse physiological effects on children; studies have shown that excessive television watching children sharply increases their risk of obesity and high cholesterol. Insofar as federal regulation seeks to make television more attractive to children (by fewer commercials, for instance), federal intervention can harm children's health.
The FCC held hearings Tuesday to consider proposals to force TV stations to broadcast educational programming for children one hour a day and to impose more stringent definitions of FCC-approved children's programming. But the mute button on television remote controls -- and extensive competition among many channels -- is a much better regulator of excessive ads and shabby shows than is the FCC.
If government really wants educational television, perhaps it should simply require every television station to run flashing test patterns declaring, "Go read a book!"
James Bovard is the author of "Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty."