COMMERCIAL TELEVISION stations in the Baltimore-Washington area have improved their programming for children in the past year -- but only slightly. The Maryland Campaign for Kids' TV gave an overall grade of "C" to the stations' performance, up from "C-" last year. Even so, there is a long way to go, in quantity, quality and timing. When stations do provide good programs for children, too many of them get buried in very early morning slots when most young viewers are still asleep.
Despite these signs of progress, it's easy to understand the frustration that has prompted Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt to propose tougher regulations. The five-member FCC is divided on the proposal, but Mr. Hundt is pushing for requirements that each station, in order to keep its license, must provide a minimum of three hours a week of educational and informational programming -- or finance such programs on other stations.
That's a sensible trade. Commercial television does a great job of pushing toys and entertaining kids. But no one would call its programs high-octane brain food. Given the high violence quotient in most network shows for children, no one would point to them as good influences on behavior, either.
But while commercial programming for kids is becoming a lucrative enterprise, "Ghostwriter," a popular children's program on public broadcasting stations, is being cut for lack of funds. Even the enduring "Sesame Street" is pinching pennies, laying off 12 percent of its staff. Parents who prefer their children not be bombarded with seductive advertising, gratuitous vulgarity and incessant violence ought to have some assurance that quality alternatives will continue to be available.
Chairman Hundt is right. Those who protest that such requirements are onerous or, worse, that they infringe on a station's First Amendment rights to broadcast what it pleases, need to remember that a license to broadcast carries with it a mandate to serve the public interest. Currently, the best interests of children are shortchanged by most stations.
If broadcasters do not want to put much effort into quality programming for children, why not let them discharge their obligations by funding groups that do? It's worth a try.