WASHINGTON (CNS) — In December, the Federal Communications Commission overturned the rules governing net neutrality and an open Internet that had been place for all of two years.
And before January was over, one of the commissioners who voted to overturn those rules suggested that the FCC should consider doing away with much — if not all — of the regulations governing children’s television.
In a lengthy, 2,250-word posting on the FCC’s blog, commissioner Michael O’Rielly declared it was “time for the commission … to reconsider the ineffective and burdensome requirements currently imposed on our nation’s broadcasters to air a certain amount of educational and informational children’s programming on a weekly basis, colloquially referred to as kidvid.”
O’Rielly called it part of the current FCC’s mission to “eliminate or modify outdated media regulations.”
The biggest part of the regulations that TV viewers see is that every over-the-air station is required to air three hours each week of educational or informational programming aimed at children ages 16 and under — and during a time of the day when children would be watching TV. There also are restrictions on the amount and type of advertising children can be shown.
After the Children’s Television Act was passed in 1990, no minimum requirement was in the bill, a fact noted by members of Congress. Then-Rep. (now Sen.) Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, said at the time: “The legislation does not require the FCC to set quantitative guidelines for educational programming, but instead requires the commission to base its (license renewal) decision upon an evaluation of a station’s overall service to children.”
“Had the commission heeded these statements, there likely would not be a need for this blog,” O’Rielly said. What is more true: Had broadcasters heeded the intent of the law, the FCC would have not needed to impose a three-hours-per-week requirement.
O’Rielly noted how “broadcasters are required to specify in writing the objective of the program and the target child audience, as well as provide programming information in the form of on-air identifications, program guides, and include in their public file quarterly reports the exact programs they aired in the previous quarter and the programming they plan to air in the next quarter.”
This requirement got some broadcasters in hot water when they tried to justify the airing of plainly noneducational fare like “The Flintstones” under the regulations. Thanks to the public filing, they were caught and shamed.
Further regulations in 2004 that drew O’Rielly’s ire in his blog posting included “capping the amount of permitted preemption of core programming for other programs such as breaking news or live sports. The order also expanded various commercial limitations to core programming, including bans on website displays and host selling.”
West Coast stations tried to justify not airing children’s program due to live sports events that could begin as early as 9 a.m. Pacific time, not counting pregame shows. “Host selling” refers to shows featuring toys sold by one company, with the show being sponsored by that company, which blurs the line in young minds between fantasy and reality, regardless of how educational such a show may be. Or may not be.
O’Rielly lauds, and rightly so, the quality children’s programming on PBS, which is not bound by the regulations because PBS doesn’t air commercials.
But commercial networks and station groups could just as easily make programming deals for the same providers PBS uses. Instead, commercial TV has farmed out production from its own studios.
O’Rielly reminds his readers there also are more children’s programs on cable TV channels geared toward kids, as well as streaming services, and new “Sesame Street” episodes on HBO. All this, he argues, is sufficient evidence to ditch the three-hour regulatory requirement.
The Saturday morning children’s programming ghetto still exists, although the CBS affiliate in Washington was airing an “E/I” nature show during the noon hour one recent Sunday — just before a college basketball game.
But stations also have largely abandoned the youngest part of the children’s demographic to air shows geared more toward teens and adolescents — and along with it, more ad minutes targeted to groups with either more buying power or more nagging power. This would seem to jibe with O’Rielly’s contention that “there is scant evidence to indicate that children’s programming on broadcast stations has improved,” adding: “There is also no scientific proof that the kidvid requirements specifically have led to developmental benefits for children.”
O’Rielly pins four specific faults to the children’s broadcasting requirements:
— They pre-empt “more desired or valuable local programming,” although it’s a stretch to define how local a college football game in Pennsylvania is to viewers in Oregon.
— They’ve killed “shorter and infrequent programming” like ABC’s “Schoolhouse Rock” and “Afterschool Specials,” both of which were pretty much dead before the rules took effect.
— They interfere with “development of internet content,” although keeping kids away from a computer screen has proven to be tougher for parents than keeping them away from the tube.
— They “impose costly and burdensome paperwork,” but that’s part of the cost of doing business on the public’s airwaves.
“I have serious concerns about the changes contemplated by Commissioner O’Rielly and how they would negatively impact kids coast-to-coast,” Markey said in a statement responding to O’Rielly’s blog posting. “Families around our country, particularly in low-income areas, rely on free, over-the-air children’s programming as a way to educate their children.”
“O’Rielly’s proposal should be dead on arrival. It is unthinkable that the FCC would turn its back on children –- and the law,” said Adrianne B. Furniss, executive director of the Benton Foundation, which works to ensure that media and telecommunications serve the public interest and enhance U.S. democracy, unhappy that O’Rielly would want to sever one of commercial broadcasters’ “last public interest obligations.”
Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.