PASADENA, Calif. -- After some intense last-minute deal-making, President Clinton is expected to tell panelists at his White House summit on children's television today that an on-again, off-again plan to provide more and better educational programming for kids is back on track.
The plan, which would require all television stations to carry three hours of educational programming a week as a condition of license renewal, was thought to be dead Friday by many children's advocates, broadcasters and even some at the Federal Communications Commission.
But discussions were jump-started by the White House with a compromise proposal when it realized that today's conference was in danger of being perceived as a failure without some positive news on the three-hour rule, for which Clinton and his FCC chairman, Reed Hundt, had been campaigning since May.
Unlike the White House summit in February -- attended by all the moguls of the industry from Michael Eisner of Disney/Capitol Cities/ABC to Rupert Murdoch of Fox/News Corp. -- Hollywood had pointedly snubbed Clinton on this one.
Each of the networks will be represented at today's conference in the East Room, but not by the top tier of executives. The highest-ranking participants will be Geraldine Laybourne, president of the ABC/Disney Cable Networks, and Margaret Loesch, president of Fox Children's Network -- well down the food chain from Eisner and Murdoch. NBC, which sent network president Robert Wright in February, is sending Peter Engel, who runs a production company that makes Saturday morning teen shows like "Saved By The Bell" for NBC. CBS was treating the summit as such a low priority that, as of Friday, it had not even decided who would attend.
The White House was hoping for some star power with Fred Rogers of "Mr. Rogers" fame and Bill Nye of "Bill Nye The Science Guy" scheduled to attend. Late last week, though, as stories started appearing in the trade papers about the hardball from Hollywood, the White House extended an invitation to Bill Cosby, who is currently promoting his new fall series, "Cosby" on CBS. Cosby's agent, Norman Brokaw, said his client would attend, but preparations were in such a scramble mode at the White House that Cosby's name was not on the list of participants released to the press.
Thirty to 50 people will attend today's summit, including Vice President Al Gore, Tipper Gore and Hillary Rodham Clinton. The group will include children's television advocates, academics and producers.
"This is about [using] the presidency as a 'bully pulpit,' bringing the players in the entertainment industry who are involved in children's programming together to talk about what works and how we can get more of it," said John Emerson, a deputy assistant to Clinton.
After introductory remarks from the president, Hillary Clinton will lead a discussion on the "importance of television as a positive force in child development." The Gores will moderate sessions on "models of success in children's programming" and "overcoming barriers to producing better children's television," according to Emerson.
"I think it is going to be more a dialogue or discussion than formal presentations -- more like the 'Family Reunion' kind of thing last year in Nashville," said Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Center for Media Education, an advocacy group based in Washington. "But overcoming barriers to better kids' TV is key."
Administration officials and advocates like Montgomery say the biggest barriers to more and better kids' television are the National Association of Broadcasters, the trade group that represents virtually every network and television station in the country, and FCC commissioner James Quello, whom the television industry considers its best friend on the four-member commission.
But, not surprisingly, it is not nearly as simple as that partisan explanation suggests. Chairman Hundt, a prep-school classmate of Gore and law-school classmate of Clinton, has been just as big a barrier -- due to his inexperience or arrogance, depending on which analysis you buy.
In June, after almost a year of debate and all kinds of political pressure, Quello agreed to change his position on the three-hour plan, which would break a deadlock on the FCC and give it the power to revoke broadcasters' licenses if they did not provide such educational programming for children. With Quello's shift, a tentative deal was in place that could be signed, sealed and delivered with cameras rolling and industry leaders present at today's summit.
But, two weeks ago when Quello saw the 200-page plan Hundt had come up with on the three-hour rule, he angrily denounced it and the deal unraveled.
"This is the most regulatory micro-management of a news and information service that I have seen in my 22 years at the FCC," Quello said, stressing that the plan created more "big government" while giving broadcasters "no flexibility" in meeting children's needs.
One aspect that most angered Quello and broadcasters was Hundt's proposed content-control boards, set up to decide what programs would qualify as educational under the three-hour guideline. One version of such a board that Hundt endorsed was to be chaired by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania, and would include such members as PBS documentary-maker Ken Burns.
"Forgive me for thinking content-control boards sound dangerously like censorship boards," Eddie Fritts, president of the NAB, said last week in explaining why the NAB was fighting the three-hour plan proposed by Hundt.
The scorn for Hundt's board extended well beyond partisan politics. Douglas Gomery, a University of Maryland professor who has written extensively about the the history of such boards in the motion picture industry, said it was impractical, loaded with potential conflicts of interest and likely to be highly elitist.
That is where things stood until Friday when the administration, faced with mounting questions about who would attend and what Clinton hoped to accomplish at today's summit, went into action. First, Clinton's staff took control of summit planning from Gore's office, which had been fumbling the ball. Then, the Clinton spin doctors, like Emerson, went to work. By late afternoon, a compromise proposal was being batted back and forth from the White House to the FCC, the NAB and various reform leaders.
Likely to happen
"It looks like it's going to happen," Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television, said late Friday, referring to a deal on the three-hour rule.
Weekend events in Atlanta understandably may have kept the administration from closing the deal, but there does appear to be enough consensus for Clinton to save face at today's summit.
At the very worst, the President can now use the forum to say how hard he and his staff have been working to get the deal and how evil Quello and the broadcasters are for resisting. More likely, he will be able to say that the White House compromise got the talks back on track and progress is being made. The only real question is whether he will present fragile consensus achieved over the weekend as a done deal the way Hundt did last month.
There is, of course, a larger question: Whether the compromise plan will actually improve the television environment for children.
In return for the broadcasters agreeing to the three-hour minimum, the White House is promising them much greater flexibility in terms of what they could count as educational programming. For example, instead of having to air hour- or half-hour educational programs regularly scheduled for 13 weeks -- which is what the original plan called for -- television stations could now satisfy the rule through specials, randomly scheduled public service announcements and even with such "community service" efforts as donating used computers to schools.
It is hard to see how donating used computers to schools is going to make a difference in what kids see when they come home from school and tune into a television landscape of "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" and sleazy daytime talk shows.
What it is far more likely to do is make a difference in how Clinton is perceived by some voters in this election year.
Poll after poll shows that one of the greatest frustrations among parents is what they see as their inability to protect their children from media images and messages that threaten their values, as well as their children's mental health.
As ABC News' correspondent Cokie Roberts put it in a discussion about presidential politics here last week, "Here is what you hear from voter after voter: 'We're terribly worried about our kids, because the school is not as good as it should be and, in some cases, it's not even safe. And, then they come home from school and they watch television and there's something on that conflicts with our values. And we feel totally out of control to do anything about that, and somebody should help us.' And that is where politics comes in."
Enter Clinton and the White House television summits. In describing the purpose of today's conference, Emerson said, "Basically, in terms of the flow of this and the White House conference with the media executives that we did in February, [they] were about giving parents the power to choose. What this conference is about is giving them better choices when it comes to educational and children's television programming."
Or, at least, the appearance of such empowerment through the White House summits of that "somebody" named Clinton.
Pub Date: 7/29/96