Measure To Bar TV Shows Aimed at Selling Toys Debated
WASHINGTON--Legislation being considered by the Congress would require television stations to broadcast at least seven hours of "educational'' programming for children every week.
The controversial measure, which was the subject of a House hearing this month, would also limit the amount of commercial time allowed during children's programs and prohibit the broadcasting of shows whose primary aim is to sell a featured toy.
The measure runs counter to the deregulation of television that has been encouraged by the Reagan Administration.
"None of us would be sitting here today if children's television were performing adequately, if the marketplace and self-regulation were working to limit commercial abuses targeted to children,'' Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television, told the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance.
Also testifying in favor of the legislation were Robert Chase, a high-school teacher from Connecticut who represented the National Education Association, and Ellen Wartella, an associate professor of communications at the University of Illinois.
Ms. Wartella said research indicates that children have limited ability to understand the difference between advertising and programming.
But representatives from the broadcasting and advertising industries argued that the problem is not dire and can best be remedied by the actions of the marketplace.
Relatively few stations exceed the proposed maximum commercial time of 9.5 minutes per hour on weekends and 12 minutes on weekdays, they said.
Moreover, they argued, the advent of cable television and videocassette recorders has given children and their parents greater opportunities for turning off offending programs in favor of others more to their liking.
In addition, opponents said, it would be impossible to define clearly which shows were "30-minute commercials.''
Even the highly acclaimed "Sesame Street'' program broadcast on public television has a related line of toys, they noted.
And toy-related programs on commercial stations have not proved popular and are declining in number, they added.
"Kids will not sit and watch just anything,'' said Robert J. Hamacher, president of an independent television station in Spokane, Wash.
Parents do not hesitate to complain if they dislike a show aired by the station, he added.
Gilbert H. Weil, general counsel for the Association of National Advertisers, said that if commercials were harmful to children, the only real solution would be a total ban.
Even the lesser restrictions proposed in the legislation would probably be unconstitutional, he maintained.
Broadcasters also objected to the proposed requirement of a minimum weekly amount of "programming specifically designed to meet the educational and informational benefit'' of children between the ages of 2 and 12.
Such a mandate, they argued, would place a substantial burden on stations by forcing them to buy expensive programs that are unpopular and do not sell advertising.
Mr. Hamacher contended that "the bill only goes half way: it mandates that we provide the program, but it does not mandate that kids watch it.''
But Mr. Chase of the NEA said the proposal "appears to be the only way to force the television industry to fulfill the promise television held out when it first became a true mass medium.''
Mr. Hamacher was the only witness to support an alternative bill, backed by several Republicans on the subcommittee, that would allow broadcasters an exemption from antitrust laws in order to formulate voluntary industry guidelines.
The proposed limit on commercial time for children's programming was included in guidelines endorsed by the National Association of Broadcasters until 1982, when an antitrust suit by the Justice Department forced abandonment of the code, which was deemed a restraint of trade.
The Federal Communications Commission informally adopted similar guidelines limiting commercials on children's programs, but dropped them as part of a major deregulation initiative in 1984.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia last year ordered the F.C.C. to reconsider its decision, a process that is still under way. The agency will accept public comment on the issue until April 4.
A subcommittee aide said the telecommunications panel will act soon on the legislation, which would force the agency's hand.
Similar bills have been introduced in the Senate, but no action on them is scheduled.--J.M.