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Educators Urge Passage of Educational TV Mandate

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Washington--Educators and television-network officials differed sharply last week in their reactions to a bill introduced by Representative Timothy Wirth, Democrat of Colorado, that would require commercial and public television stations to broadcast at least one hour of educational programming for children during prime-time viewing hours.

Mr. Wirth said he proposed the measure in response to the recent report of the National Science Board, which characterized television as a dominant educational influence on children.

In a joint hearing held, on the day the Wirth bill was introduced, by the House Subcommittees on Telecommunications, Consumer Protection, and Finance, and Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education, representatives of major networks attacked the idea of "requiring" children's programming during prime time.

Spokesmen for public broadcasting, however, said they support the bill, called the Children's Television Education Act, as did the educators who testified at the hearing.

"The nation's broadcasters do not need the government to be their programming partner--the program director--to set the nation's programming agenda," said John D. Abel, senior vice president of research and planning for the National Association of Broadcasters. Such a proposal, he added, "is shockingly intrusive in a sensitive First Amendment area."

Such a move to "dictate" the con-tent of programs is without precedent, unwarranted, and unproductive, Mr. Abel told the subcommittee. "I have no question but that the proposal and its motivation are well intentioned," he said, "but the purpose of the First Amendment is to protect broadcasting from well-intentioned programming intrusions as well as those that are not so well intentioned."

Mr. Abel suggested some "better" ways of accomplishing educational objectives, such as keeping students in school an extra hour and making more demanding homework assignments.

"If students need physical exercise, we do not send them home to watch a TV show on exercise," he said. "We make them take a gym class where there is supervision. It is naive to assume that after a full school day, youngsters will be eager and able to master the exact sciences by watching a television program. ... Broadcasting will not, cannot, and should not take the place of a qualified instructor."

Needs and Interests

Mr. Abel said he believes broadcasters are currently meeting the needs and interests of children and will continue their commitment to children's programming.

But educators representing the National Education Association and the National pta countered that they strongly supported Mr. Wirth's bill.

"The nea agrees wholeheartedly with the goals of the bill that calls for utilizing the potential of television for the positive educational benefit of our children," said Sharon Robinson, director of instruction and professional development for the teachers' association.

For several years, Ms. Robinson testified, the nea and numerous other organizations have been asking commercial broadcasters to offer at least one hour of programming geared specifically to children. "It seems to us that this is the rock-bottom amount of time that should be devoted to children's programming," she said. "Yet, even this seems too much of a task for broadcasters."

She added that a strong enforcement mechanism should be included in the legislation to ensure that broadcasters will obey the act, should it become law. Testimony before the telecommunications subcommittee earlier this year, she pointed out, indicated that broadcasters are not now meeting the less stringent standards for children's television now mandated by the Federal Communications Commission.

"It would logically follow, then," Ms. Robinson said, "that unless enforcement were built into this legislation, broadcasters, if they found it convenient, could continue to excuse themselves from complying with the law."

Grace Baisinger, past president of the National pta, said the pleas for better children's programming that have been made to commercial broadcasters over the past decade have gone unheeded.

"Back in the late 1970's, we were asking the networks to give us program alternatives, as well as more and better children's programming,'' she said. "Little did we know what 'choices' would be available in 1983." Because of the enormous impact television has on viewers, particularly young viewers, said Ms. Baisinger, "there is no question that federal policy must be developed" in the areas of programming, deregulation, and appropriations for public broadcasting.

The National Science Board's report, "Educating Americans for the 21st Century," calls for a closer tie between education and the broadcast media in both the public and private sectors. (See Education Week, Sept. 14, 1983.)

The authors of the report say that television is a major influence in the education of American children and that it is "perhaps the most pervasive medium of informal learning."

"Even young children watch almost four hours of television daily," the report states.

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