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New Federal Rules for Children's Television Draw Fire

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WASHINGTON--Just a few weeks after the Children's Television Act of 1990 became law, the Federal Communications Commission has moved quickly to propose new rules to reflect the direction it received from the Congress on how to regulate children's programming.

However, some of the proposed rules are disturbing to backers of the legislation, who say the FCC appears to be only minimally interested in the goal of making children's television serve more educational needs.

On Nov. 8, the commission endorsed a proposed set of rules to fulfill mandates included in the new law, which took effect when Presiush allowed it to become law without his signature last month. (See Education Week, Oct. 24, 1990.)

Most disappointing to children's-television advocates is the proposed definition of "program-length commercials." These are such programs as "G.I. Joe" and "ThunderCats," which critics argue have been developed primarily to promote already existing toys. The new law directed the commission to develop a definition.

Advocates had hoped the commission's definition would subject such shows to the law's limits on the amount of commercials allowed during children's programming. The law restricts advertising to no more than 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on week But the FCC proposes defining "program-length commercial" as a "program associated with a product in which commercials for that product are aired."

Only a program "so interwoven with, and in essence auxiliary to, the sponsor's advertising" would be considered a commercial and, thus, violate the time limits, the commission proposed.

Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television and a long-time lobbyist on children's-programming issues, called the definition "outrageous."

"It is illegal already to put a G.I. Joe commercial in the 'G.I. Joe' show," she said. "They just defined the problem differently."

Some observers in the industry have wondered whether the strict definition of program-length commercial favored by some advocates would cover such shows as the Public Broadcasting Service's "Sesame Street," which has spawned a highly successful line of toys and educational products.

But Ms. Charren said there is an important distinction between the legitimate licensing of characters from established television programs and the practice employed by toy companies and advertising agencies of building programs around toys.

Another major provision of the law calls on the commission to consider a television station's efforts to serve the educational needs of children when it decides on renewal of its broadcast license.

The commission asked for comment on whether under this provision children should be defined as age 12 and under, as they are under the law's provision placing limits on commercials.

The commission proposed that stations submit an assessment of their programming for children when they apply for license renewal. These reports could take into account circumstances in the community and programming on competing stations, the commission said.

Comments on the proposed regulations, which have not yet been published in the Federal Register, are due to the FCC by Jan. 10, 1991.

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