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FCC Urged To Set Standards for Children's TV

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A coalition of educators and children's-television advocates called on the Federal Communications Commission last week to adopt a rule requiring broadcasters to air at least one hour of educational programming a day.

The request was one of hundreds of suggestions the FCC received in response to a request for public comment on a more modest proposal the commission put forth earlier this year to put teeth into the Children's Television Act of 1990.

The federal law requires broadcasters to air programming designed to educate children, but critics say the requirements are too loose.

For several years, the FCC has pondered various regulatory proposals that would impose a specific standard for the types and amount of educational shows that broadcasters would have to air as a condition of license renewal. But the lobbying strength of the broadcast industry, observers say, has made it difficult to adopt any strong measures.

Advocates of a federal regulation dictating a specific amount of children's educational programming believe the current proceeding before the commission is their best chance for achieving that goal.

"The stage is set for a critical moment in communications history," the Center for Media Education, a Washington-based watchdog group, said in its submission.

The center and others complain that broadcasters pass off cartoons and general-audience shows such as "America's Funniest Home Videos" as meeting the vague educational requirements of the 1990 law.

"As was the case in 1992, stations continue to claim programming as educational when clearly it is not," Dale Kunkel, an associate professor of communication at the University of California at Santa Barbara, argues in a new study of broadcasters' submissions to the FCC. (See box, this page.)

Message From Clinton

The FCC voted last April to put forth for public comment a proposed regulation that would require broadcasters to air at least three hours a week of programming designed to educate children. Such shows would have to have clear educational objectives and would have to air between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m., a response to many stations' current practice of airing educational shows well before dawn.

The three-hour minimum was proposed by FCC Chairman Reed E. Hundt, who has also suggested that stations could be allowed to pay others in their markets to air two of the three required hours.

Even these modest proposals have failed to gain the support of a majority of the five-member commission. (See Education Week, April 12, 1995.)

The commission received hundreds, if not thousands, of public comments on the proposals by the Oct. 16 deadline, including electronic mail from classroom teachers, thick legal documents from the major television networks, and a letter from President Clinton, who backed Mr. Hundt's proposed three-hours-a-week minimum.

"The American public has been disappointed" with broadcasters' response to the Children's Television Act so far, Mr. Clinton wrote last month. "The FCC and the broadcast industry have an unequaled opportunity to redefine how television can serve the public interest, especially with respect to our children."

The Center for Media Education was joined in its filing by numerous education and child-advocacy groups, including the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National PTA. Citing studies that found children watch an average of 28 hours of television a week, the center is calling for a rule requiring one hour a day of educational programming on each station.

"The FCC can make its expectations of broadcasters ... concrete and specific, or it can continue to leave these decisions to the marketplace, where experience demonstrates that the drive to maximize profit also drives out sustained efforts to provide children's educational programming," the center argues.

First Amendment Concerns

Broadcasters counter that the 1990 law has resulted in more educational programming and that the proposed three-hour minimum is both unnecessary and likely unconstitutional.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which represents the major television networks as well as local stations, argued in its filing last week that the amount of educational programming on the air has more than doubled since the passage of the Children's Television Act.

A study submitted by the nab contends that the average television station aired more than four hours of educational programming a week in 1994. The study does not discuss which programs it defined as educational, but the broadcasters contend that Congress intended a broad definition of educational programming.

"Children learn from a broad range of types of programming" and "learning encompasses much more than academic subjects," the nab argues.

The broadcasters' group also maintains that any minimum requirement for educational programming would run afoul of the First Amendment's guarantee of free expression.

"These proposals are extraordinary," it contends. "Never in the 61 years since the passage of the Communications Act of 1934 has the commission required licensees to air specific amounts of programming that fall within a precise government definition."

The Public Broadcasting Service filed a provocative proposal last week that calls for allowing commercial broadcasters to forgo airing any educational shows--as long as they contribute to a fund for children's programming on public-TV stations.

The plan is a variation on Mr. Hundt's idea of allowing broadcasters to pay other stations to air some of the required amount of educational programming. Mr. Hundt indicated last week that he was intrigued by the public broadcasters' plan.

The FCC will accept responses to the public comments it received for one month. A commission spokesman said it was unlikely the panel would be prepared to vote on any regulations until after Jan. 1.

Westinghouse Deal

Meanwhile, a separate but related controversy continues to simmer. The Westinghouse Electric Corp. announced last month that it would increase the amount of children's educational programming it will air on the CBS television network if its planned purchase of the network goes through.

The announcement prompted the Center for Media Education and other advocacy groups to drop a challenge to the takeover they had filed with the FCC, which must approve certain waivers and license transfers to make the deal possible.

Mr. Hundt also applauded the Westinghouse announcement, which prompted two key Republican members of Congress to question whether the FCC chairman had improperly pressured Westinghouse to increase its children's-television commitment.

Mr. Hundt has responded that he has not given Westinghouse any commitment to vote for the needed waivers. But he maintains there is nothing wrong with the FCC using its regulatory leverage to encourage programming goals.

"Whatever the outcome of the Westinghouse proceeding, I believe that we need to set out clear rules that apply to all broadcasters," Mr. Hundt said in a letter to one of the lawmakers.

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