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TV Stations Faulted for Dearth of Educational Fare

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WASHINGTON--One year after the Children's Television Act went into effect, some television stations are asserting that cartoons such as "The Jetsons'' and reruns of "Leave It to Beaver'' comply with the law's mandate for programs that meet the educational and informational needs of children, an advocacy group charged last week.

The federal law has caused few commercial stations to add educational shows for children to their schedules, according to a report by the Center for Media Education.

"Over all, television broadcasters are not making a serious effort to adequately serve the educational and informational needs of children,'' says the report, which was released at a press conference here. "Many broadcasters are coming up with new descriptions of old programs rather than finding new programs to meet the mandate of the law.''

Under the act, a compromise measure passed by Congress in 1990, in order to renew their licenses broadcasters must present shows "specifically designed to serve the educational and informational needs of children.''

The Federal Communications Commission last year decided that stations must air some standard-length shows, not just short segments, to meet the law's mandate, but it declined to set a minimum weekly requirement.

Many children's-television advocates say the law has no teeth because the F.C.C. almost never withdraws the license of a broadcast station over a programming requirement.

The Center for Media Education's study, done with the help of the Institute for Public Representation at the Georgetown University Law Center, examined license-renewal applications from 58 stations in eight states that were the first required to file under the new law.

The study found that many stations redefined cartoon shows to highlight their educational aspects.

For example, a station in Jackson, Miss., listed cartoons such as "Alvin & the Chipmunks,'' "Beetlejuice,'' and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles'' in its filing with the F.C.C.

A Detroit station described why certain cartoon episodes helped meet the law's education and information mandate, such as "Super Mario Brothers 4'' ("Yoshi learns to have more self-confidence'') and "Yo Yogi!'' ("Snag learns that he can capture the bank-robbing cockroach more successfully by using his head, rather than his muscles.'')

Some stations came up with new descriptions of old shows to indicate how they help satisfy the law, the report charged.

Christmas specials were a popular choice, the group said. An Arkansas station cited "Santa Claus is Coming to Town'' because it "answers some of the mysteries, myths, and questions surrounding the legend of Santa Claus.''

A New Orleans station listed episodes of the show "Leave It to Beaver,'' including this program description: "Eddie misunderstands Wally's help to girlfriend, Cindy, and confronts Wally with his fist. Communication and trust are shown in this episode.''

Stretching Credulity

Peggy Charren, the lobbyist who was the prime mover behind the law, said broadcasters were stretching credulity to maintain that such shows were specifically designed to teach children.

"If 'G.I. Joe' qualifies for what Congress was talking about, so does 'Batman,' 'Spiderman,' 'Thundercats,' and all these other shows stations have been showing for years,'' said Ms. Charren, the founder of the group Action for Children's Television. "It took five years for this bill to happen. This is what they meant?''

Representatives of the broadcast industry criticized the study, saying it was inaccurate because it was based on the first months after the law took effect.

Valerie Schulte, a lawyer for the National Association of Broadcasters, said most stations listed every show that might fit the definition of serving children's needs because they were uncertain how the F.C.C. would react to their license-renewal applications.

"Under the new reporting standard, stations threw everything but the kitchen sink into their renewals because they didn't know how the F.C.C. was going to react,'' she said.

Stations have been adding specific educational programs that have become available within the last year, Ms. Schulte added.

Benefits Cited

The law has been credited with spurring the production of shows such as "New for Kids,'' a half-hour weekly current-events show from the Cable News Network and T.B.S. Productions. It is being syndicated to local stations and also appears on the cable superstation WTBS. Other syndicated educational shows that some stations have added to their schedules include "Not Just News'' and "Wide World of Kids.'' (See Education Week, Feb. 26, 1992.)

The Center for Media Education acknowledges that some stations have purchased these shows, but the report charges that they are scheduling them in marginal time periods such as 5:30 A.M. or 6 A.M.

"Many stations are treating them as tokenF.C.C. shows,'' said Kathryn C. Montgomery, a co-director of the center.

The report calls on the F.C.C. to conduct an inquiry into whether the broadcast industry is meeting the mandate of the law, and it calls for stricter reporting requirements to evaluate stations' compliance. It also calls on Congress to hold oversight hearings.

In a related development, the advisory council of the National Endowment for Children's Educational Television met for the first time last week to begin deciding how to spend its $2 million appropriation.

The endowment, also created under the 1990 children's-television law, will disburse grants for research on children's television or to help develop shows.

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