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Should commercial TV try to teach children?


Are you for Big Bird or big business? Are you on the side of little kids or the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers?

There is a tremendous battle going on in Washington over children's television, and, as a result, these are the kinds of loaded questions parents are asking their elected officials and federal regulators.

On one side of the ramparts is the commercial broadcasting industry -- the networks, their affiliates and local independent television stations. On the other is a coalition of education, health and child advocacy organizations, ranging from the National Parent Teacher Association to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

In the middle -- and being squeezed hard from both ends -- is the highly politicized Federal Communications Commission. The question at the heart of the struggle: Should the government make commercial television stations air some educational children's programming?

Tomorrow, the FCC ends six months of hearing public comment on the matter and heads into a period of deliberation that some analysts think will lead to a landmark ruling. Any kind of order forcing stations to air any amount of clearly defined educational programming for kids would be landmark -- especially in light of the television industry's history of calling such programs as "The Jetsons" and "The Flintstones" educational.

"For more than a quarter of a century I have been trying to get American broadcasters to live up to their legally mandated obligation to serve America's children," Peggy Charren, 67, founder of Action for Children's Television, said last week. "And for those 27 years, commercial broadcasters have been saying they can't afford to provide creative, informative choices for 40 million Americans under the age of 16."

Ms. Charren, who was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom earlier this month for her work with ACT, made that statement Wednesday at a press conference on Capitol Hill as she and leaders of two dozen or so national child advocacy groups went off to lobby the five FCC commissioners.

Leaders step up

The press conference was another round of fire in the battle over kids television. But it was still impressive to see leader after leader from some of the largest educational, health and parents organizations in the country step before the cameras and television lights to make their pleas.

And, if Ms. Charren seemed a little weary of the battle, she had a right to be. In 1990, after two decades of fighting for better kids television, her efforts led to Congress passing the Children's Television Act, which said that all commercial television stations must air some educational and informational programming for children.

While it seemed like a great victory at the time, the act neither defined "educational and informational" nor said how much of it had to be aired, which allowed the broadcast industry to render it all but meaningless.

Many stations aired programs like "The Flintstones" and simply called them educational. That subversion of the Children's Television Act is the reason for the war now being waged in Washington.

"All we want is for the act to be implemented and enforced," said Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Center for a Media Education, a public policy group headquartered in Washington. "The law is already there."

Specifically, the reform coalition wants the FCC to define educational programming in a way that closes the "Jetsons" loophole. It also wants the government to force stations to air one hour of educational programming a day sometime between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.

It doesn't seem like such a big demand. But, on the other side, the broadcast industry says that it is already providing more than enough educational programming and that there is no need for the FCC to do anything.

Its chief lobbyist is the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents more than 1,000 television stations. Friday, the NAB released a survey that says television stations on average are offering four hours a week of educational children's programming, up from two hours in 1990 when the Children's Television Act went into effect.

"Our view on this issue is that, while we believe there are very compelling First Amendment arguments, we think we are fulfilling our obligations under the act and that no additional government regulation is needed," said Lynn McReynolds, a spokeswoman for the organization.

As it stands now, of the five FCC commissioners, two agree with the NAB, two disagree, and one is undecided. Susan Ness and chairman Reed Hundt want to enforce the act and make television stations carry genuinely educational programs when kids are watching. They propose three hours of such programs a week as a compromise. They are both appointees of President Clinton, who has called for the FCC to act.

James Quello and Andrew Barrett are against any FCC action. They are appointees of presidents Reagan and Bush.

The swing vote belongs to Commissioner Rachelle Chong, a Republican appointed by Clinton, and she says she's undecided.

Lobbied in Washington

LaTanya Bailey Jones, director of the Maryland Campaign for Kids TV, was one of the advocates who lobbied Ms. Chong last week. Ms. Jones met with Jane Mago, Ms. Chong's senior media and legal adviser.

"She was extremely interested in our campaign's report card on how Maryland and Washington stations are performing in terms of the act," Ms. Jones said.

The Maryland Campaign for Kids TV found that local stations are using a broad definition of "educational," which results in such shows as "Saved by the Bell: The New Class" and "Hang Time" qualifying.

While she does not consider that as outrageous as calling "The Jetsons" educational, Ms. Jones does label such shows "educational lite" or "educational not."

It's that kind of behavior by the broadcasters that leads Ms. Charren to say, "These last three decades prove that it is naive to believe that self-regulation in the TV industry will work for children."

Whether Ms. Chong will see it that way and vote accordingly is still anybody's guess.

But independent academic experts on children's television, who are not involved in the fray, say she should. In fact, it seems impossible to find any scholar familiar with the history of children's television who is not in favor of the FCC using its power over station licenses to make broadcasters air the three hours of educational programming Mr. Hundt has suggested.

Sheri Parks, who teaches a course, "Children and Television," at the University of Maryland, says, "I don't think it's a bad thing at all."

Dr. Parks says the FCC is on safe ground in demanding a certain number of hours from stations, as long as it does not get overly restrictive in terms of dictating content.

"By saying you must carry some educational programs, it's a must-carry situation, which is not new in media affairs," Dr. Parks said. "The government is simply saying, 'You must cater somewhat to this population that is less profitable than adults are.' So, it's not censorship per se, and I don't have a problem with it."

View from Goucher

Shirley Peroutka, who teaches television at Goucher College, says, "I think the FCC should go ever farther."

Dr. Peroutka says she thinks the government should force commercial broadcasters to get serious about educational children's programming: "I mean, look at the things these people have done in the past and called educational -- episodes of 'Oprah' and old 'Tom and Jerry' cartoons."

Lois Jean White, president-elect of the national Parent Teachers Association, says she's not an expert on television, just a concerned parent who wants the FCC to know how thousands of parents in her organization feel.

"Let's put to rest the allegation that the FCC should not serve as the nation's nanny," she says, "and that parents should act as the sole arbiter of their children's viewing. Many parents do make an effort to monitor their children's viewing. But parents cannot turn on quality programming if it's not there.

"We urge the FCC to balance the power of the television industry with a vote for children and parents. The fate of children's programming lies in the hands of five FCC officials."

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