Agency Urged To Regulate Children's TV
Washington--Children's television advocates last week urged the Federal Communications Commission (fcc) to "send a signal" to the major commercial television networks that the commission has not abandoned the rulemaking procedures regarding broadcasters' responsibilities for providing programming for children begun two years ago during the Carter Administration.
Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television, a nonprofit public-interest group, said there is a "perception among the networks" that the commission believes "children are no longer important."
The result, she said, "has been significant 'backsliding' and reduced programming for children."
She spoke during an open forum held by the fcc to give various groups a chance to express concerns or grievances, or to give opinions that may influence upcoming fcc policy decisions.
At last week's meeting, the commission also heard from people concerned about citizen's band radio and telecommunications satellites.
Also commenting about children's television, Robert Harman, director of communications for the National Education Association, said it is unrealistic to think that cable television will meet the public need for children's programming.
He urged the commission to continue the process of rulemaking on the subject of children's programming.
Karin English, president of the Multi-Cultural TV Council, told the commission that "black and brown children, especially in the inner cities, get most of their idea of what life is like" from television, and urged the fcc to remain active in the field of children's television.
There were no representatives of any of the three major commercial networks at the meeting.
The commercial networks, Ms. Charren suggested, have not fulfilled their obligations to children because they sense that the federal government is going to take a less active advocacy role during the Reagan Administration.
"We think the industry's changed attitude relates precisely to the perception that there has been a change in government interest," she said.
"Members of the industry laugh and say, 'Now it's our turn,' in off-the-record conversations," she added.
To support her "backsliding" claims, Ms. Charren cited a study of weekday programming for children completed this fall by F. Earle Barcus of Boston University and filed with the fcc last September.
According to that report, she said, there is less regularly scheduled weekday programming for children on commercial television than ever before. Twenty-nine percent of 588 stations that supplied information for the report said they aired no regularly scheduled programs for children between the hours of 6:00 A.M. and 6:00 P.M. on weekdays.
Sixty percent said they carried no regularly scheduled after-school programs for children between 2:00 P.M. and 6:00 P.M.
"Captain Kangaroo" was the only regularly scheduled weekday program designed for young people, the report said, and it constituted 30 percent of all weekday daytime commercial programming for children at the stations.
Ms. Charren also cited ABC for replacing its Sunday children's show ''Animals Animals Animals" with an adult program; NBC for "phasing out" "Special Treat," a series of afternoon specials for children; CBS for scuttling a pilot for a children's program developed by the Children's Television Workshop last winter and planned for weekday afternoons; and CBS also for its recent treatment of "Captain Kangaroo."
This fall, the network cut the perennially popular children's program from one hour to 30 minutes in order to enlarge its morning news show, and last week CBS moved the show back to 6:30 A.M. in most cities that still carry it. It has been canceled altogether in 26 of the top 50 television markets in the country, and it is now shown at 5:30 A.M. in Phoenix and 6:00 A.M. in San Francisco, reported Ms. Charren.
"CBS ran an ad that says 'Get up a little earlier--the Captain will keep you company!'," Ms. Charren said. "At first I thought it was a mistake, that even the CBS network, as crass as it is, wouldn't be offering children a program at 5:30 in the morning. But they are."
In 1970, said Ms. Charren, act filed a petition that led to the commission's original 1974 policy statement urging broadcasters to develop programming that serves "the unique needs of the child audience," and also to set limits on the amount of advertising allowed during children's programming.
Ms. Charren reminded the commissioners that the issue of the fcc's role in children's television has been left unresolved for some time. "Many of the children the commission was concerned about when this matter was opened are already having children of their own," she noted.
All three children's television groups urged that the commission adopt guidelines to ensure that children are provided with a sufficient variety of programming. Ms. Charren suggested that the federal agency address the amount of programming designed for children, not its content.
But while the commissioners expressed some sympathy for Ms. Charren's point of view, they showed no inclination to deviate from the Reagan Administration's commitment to deregulate major American industries, including the telecommunications industry.
The commissioners noted that public broadcasting provides a large amount of children's programming, and there was general agreement among them that devoting a mandated number of hours to educational or age-specific programming would be the wrong approach to take. Mark S. Fowler, the commission's chairman, and several other commissioners suggested that the problem was best handled by parents, who should exercise their option of turning off the set more often.
"You want to use a government method to force the kinds of programming you think are desirable," Chairman Fowler chided. He suggested instead that children's television advocates consider using viewing boycotts to further their cause.
Following the commission hearing, Ms. Charren addressed, in a prepared statement, the issue of bringing pressure in the marketplace: "It has been argued that the operation of marketplace forces in the broadcasting arena will serve the public interest better than government policy or guidelines or regulations. However, marketplace forces do not work in the area of children's programming. Children have no public voice and no independent buying power. There is no profit incentive to broadcast to children in any particular time period, unless no other audience is available."
On the issue of boycotts, she said: "In order to make a boycott effective, you have to have a hit list of programs you want off the air. We want more programs on the air."
And relying on cable as the source for increased program diversity "will not serve the children of today," she said, because most homes in the country are not yet served by it.
Ms. Charren said she was slightly encouraged by the commissioners' response to her remarks. "Even in the past," she said, "they were never jumping up and down saying, 'act wants a rule! Let's make one!"'