Pressure Mounts To Improve Network Programming, Advertising

By Mark Walsh — October 11, 1989 15 min read

Washington--Concern is mounting on Capitol Hill over what many see as an unintended consequence of Reagan-era deregulation of the television industry: programming that, in the words of one senator, is “strip-mining our children’s minds.”

Nationwide, groups that have long advocated better network children’s fare than the current diet of cartoons and “program-length commercials” have been joined by new, grassroots movements pressuring advertisers to lower the level of on-air sex and violence.

And one sign of their influence has been the added momentum this year for action on long-debated federal legislation affecting what children view.

The Congress is poised to enact measures that would restore some regulation of children’s television--particularly the time allotted to ads--and provide a way, if not an ultimatum, for broadcasters to deal collectively with the question of TV violence.

Advocates for children’s television are seeking to wrap their bill, which would also encourage the provision by commercial broadcasters of educational programming, in the general mantle of Bush-era school-improvement efforts.

But for some, the stakes in this year’s Congressional debates are much broader. They include, they say, putting public-interest considerations back on a par with profit margins.

“The commercial television networks are simply using the deregulatory climate to rid themselves of a public-service obligation they no longer wish to bear,” charges Edward L. Palmer, an author, educator, and former research chief for the Children’s Television Workshop. “We have to make a special exception for children. They won’t go to Capitol Hill as an organized lobby.”

Underlying the Congressional debate is a conviction shared by most critics that commercial broadcasters, unlike their public-television counterparts, have left unrealized their potential for helping educate the young.

In fact, the critics contend, commercial television’s children’s schedule has become more of a “ghetto” than ever before, since the networks were freed five years ago from the more stringent federal regulations of an earlier era. It now consists mainly of Saturday-morning cartoons and an afterschool lineup overrun by the so-called “program-length commercials.” These are animated shows based on products available at the local toy store.

Commercial broadcasters respond to their critics by pointing to a small contingent of highly praised children’s shows--and by explaining the impact of the expanding video marketplace.

No longer, they say, do the major networks--or other free, over-the-air sources of broadcasts, such as independent TV stations--wield a controlling influence over what most children watch. The rising availability of cable television and videocassette recorders, whose content would not be regulated under federal proposals, has given children multiple programming options.

“Broadcasters face a marketplace where their audience share has declined for children’s programming, while production costs and competition from unregulated media have increased,” says Edward O. Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents the major networks and TV stations.

Advertising and ‘Needs’

In the last Congress, after years of unsuccessful attempts to re-regulate children’s television, lawmakers passed a bill that would have limited advertising and encouraged educational programming. But President Reagan vetoed that bill, citing First Amendment concerns.

His veto was denounced by Congressional Democrats and other supporters because of the care that had gone into crafting a measure that would not be opposed by the nab

For several years, the broadcasters’ group had successfully worked to defeat stronger re-regulation proposals. But it decided not to oppose last year’s bill, in part, some analysts say, because broadcasters wanted Congressional support for other industry concerns.

The same bill President Reagan vetoed was introduced anew this year in both houses of the Congress. Sponsored in the House by Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, and in the Senate by Howard M. Metzenbaum, Democrat of Ohio, it would require that the Federal Communications Commission, in reviewing a broadcast licensee’s renewal application, determine whether the licensee had served the “educational and informational needs of children in its overall programming.”

“There is almost no nonfiction programming for children on commercial television,” says Peggy Charren, president of the advocacy group Action for Children’s Television, which has campaigned for greater attention to children’s need for comprehensible and developmentally geared sources of televised news, among other concerns.

The wording of the bill’s stipulation on educational and informational content, however, represents a compromise with broadcasters. Previous unsuccessful bills have had stronger requirements, calling for broadcast8ers to provide as much as an hour a day of educational programming.

The Markey-Metzenbaum bill’s key feature, however, is its mandate that the fcc limit advertising on children’s programs to 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays.

Although the broadcasters’ association insists that there is only 8.5 minutes of advertising during the average hour of children’s programming, act has found in its own studies as many as 14 minutes of commercials in an hour.

Speaking to a Senate committee on behalf of the American Psychological Association, the University of California, Santa Barbara researcher Dale L. Kunkel explained that children below the age of 7 have no way of distinguishing advertising messages from program content, thus making them “especially vulnerable to commercial persuasion.”

“The suggested limits are generous to broadcasters,” concedes Ms. Charren. “In a perfect world, perhaps we wouldn’t sell at all to children on television.”

Writing Off Children?

In 1984, under Mr. Reagan’s appointee as fcc chairman, Mark Fowler, the agency removed all limitations on broadcast advertising, concluding that if broadcasters aired too many commercials, the “market will regulate itself, the viewers will not watch and the advertisers will not buy time.”

A year earlier, the commission had rejected a longstanding petition from act calling for commercial stations to set aside at least one-and-a-half hours each day for educational and informational programming.

Children’s-TV advocates argue that the message sent by the deregulation-minded fcc to broadcasters was that they could write off their obligation to serve the special interests of child-viewers.

With deregulation, “children’s television in the commercial sector is more of a wasteland than when that description was first applied by an fcc chairman 28 years ago,” said Bob Keeshan, who portrayed “Captain Kangaroo” on the long-running CBS children’s program, to a House subcommittee earlier this year.

CBS dropped “Captain Kangaroo” not long after the fcc’s deregulatory actions, replacing it with a news program for adults.

“The large audiences were still there for the ‘Captain Kangaroo’ program, but they were primarily children, commercially uninteresting for broadcasters,” Mr. Keeshan said.

Advocates have turned both to the courts and the Congress in an attempt to force the fcc back into the regulation of children’s TV.

In 1987, act achieved a small legal victory when the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington ordered the commission to reconsider its deregulatory decision because it had not fully considered evidence from act and other groups on two points: the exploitative impact of advertising on small children, and the inability of the television marketplace to adequately regulate the quality of children’s programs.

Two years later, however, that matter is still pending before the fmcc Its new chairman, Alfred C. Sikes, has not yet made known his views on children’s-television regulation.

Competing Bill in Senate

Meanwhile, Mr. Markey’s bill has passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee. But in the Senate, members of the Communications Subcommittee still must decide whether to proceed with Mr. Metzenbaum’s bill or with a stronger one proposed by Senator Tim Wirth, the Colorado Democrat and longtime advocate of more government regulation of children’s TV.

Aides to Mr. Wirth argue that the Metzenbaum-Markey bill would merely “codify the status quo.”

On the advertising issue, Mr. Wirth’s bill would reduce the weekend advertising limits to 9.5 minutes per hour from the 10.5 minutes in the Metzenbaum bill. Mr. Wirth says his bill would also restrict the so-called “program-length commercials” by defining them as commercial matter subject to the advertising limits.

In the area of educational programming, the Wirth bill calls for broadcasters to provide shows “specifically designed” to serve educational needs. Under the Metzenbaum proposal, an aide to Mr. Wirth suggests, broadcasters could point to entertainment programs like “The Cosby Show” and claim they had social and educational content that would satisfy the law.

“We don’t have enough educational programming on television for kids,” says Michael S. Perko, Mr. Wirth’s aide. “The way to address that concern is to have more. Our bill would do that. The other bill would not necessarily do that.”

The contents of the Wirth bill are appealing even to Mr. Metzenbaum, who has signed on as a co-sponsor of the rival legislation.

His gesture is one indication of the strong sentiment in the Congress favoring action this year on a children’s-TV bill. That sentiment was expressed at a Senate hearing by Senator Albert Gore, Democrat of Tennessee, who assessed the programming offered young people today this way: “We are strip-mining our children’s minds and doing it without any consideration of the long-term consequences,” he said.

Senator Daniel K. Inouye, Democrat of Hawaii and chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee, supports the Wirth bill, but suggests it may not be politically feasible in light of the strong support last year in both houses for the weaker bill. The nab accepts the Metzenbaum-Markey bill but opposes Mr. Wirth’s approach.

“We don’t want the government mandating what we have to put on the air,” explains Glenn C. Wright, chairman of the nab’s committee on children’s television.

In a separate but related effort, both houses of the Congress have passed versions of a bill aimed at encouraging the broadcasting industry to voluntarily reduce the level of violence on television.

Television-Violence Bill

Although these measures do not deal exclusively with children’s television, there is growing popular as well as medical concern about the impact on young viewers of TV programs that portray one violent act after another.

In addition to a growing log of anecdotal evidence from police indicating that young offenders often copy crimes they have seen on television, more than 3,000 research studies, by one estimate, have documented the harmful long-term impact of repeated doses of televised violence.

The list of reports showing a link between TV mayhem and increased agressive behavior includes studies by the U.S. Surgeon General, the National Institute of Mental Health, and other federal agencies, as well from dozens of university research groups.

Senator Paul Simon, Democrat of Illinois, cited this “overwhelming research evidence” in introducing the “television-violence act,” which would grant a three-year antitrust exemption to allow broadcasters to meet about the issue. Broadcasters had scrapped their self-imposed content code after a federal judge ruled in 1982 that a portion of it violated antitrust laws. The bill does not require the broadcasters to take any steps.

“Programmers, producers, and advertisers have discovered the axiom that violence is a nearly sure-fire ratings booster,” Mr. Simon said at a hearing earlier this year. “It is difficult for one member of the television industry to impose internal standards on violence when the others can gain a commercial advantage by going in the opposite direction.”

Of special concern is the impact of violent television programming on children. The measure has been supported by the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Pediatric Medicine.

It has been opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way, among others, which cite First Amendment concerns that the bill would lead to further efforts by the federal government to influence the content of television programming.

In the Senate, amendments were passed that would allow the industry to address not only violence but also the depictions of explicit sex and illegal drug use. The House has passed the original version that deals only with violence. An aide to Mr. Simon said the bills are expected to go to conference in the next few weeks.

Little Impact Predicted

Though spokesmen for the major networks have said they are willing to meet on the issue of violence, many in the industry are skeptical that the proposed antitrust exemption would lead to any reduction in TV violence.

“Ultimately, I think it will have very little impact on the three networks,” says Martin D. Franks, a vice president of CBS based in Washington. “It seems to me there is a limit to how much government intervention in this area can replace parental supervision.”

The major networks have long denied that the portrayal of violent acts has any measurable impact on viewers. They also claim that their own standards already prevent overly violent programs from airing.

Morever, network officials contend, if the public wanted less violent programming, that would be reflected in the ratings. But the reverse has been true: the popularity of cable networks’ unedited movies featuring explicit sex and violence has caused standards for such programming on over-the-air television to be gradually relaxed.

“The day HBO decides to decides to adopt the CBS standards-and-practices manual I will be delighted,” Mr. Franks observes, “because it will make their programming less attractive compared to ours. But I can’t believe the board of Time-Warner is going to make that decision.” (Time-Warner owns the cable network HBO.)

The proliferation of new technologies has also given children more viewing options, a development that has led to declines in the major networks’ youth audience, according to officials.

Cable television has penetrated more than half of U.S. households, while the videocassette recorder is available in 62 percent of TV households, according to Mr. Wright of the broadcasters’ group.

Because of the increasing competition, children’s programming on the major networks--ABC, CBS, and NBC--remains largely confined to Saturday mornings and the occasional afterschool special. The networks have won some praise for creative shows, such as “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” and “Schoolbreak Specials” on CBS and the “ABC Afterschool Specials.” But most of the Saturday-morning schedule is filled with formulaic, relatively inexpensive animation.

Jenny Trias, vice president of children’s programming at ABC, argues that the network’s children’s schedule is a product of the high-stakes economics of television.

“People say there is nothing new on Saturday morning,” she says. “But every three or four years we get a new group of 6- to 11-year-olds tuning in.”

When asked to name the high-quality children’s shows on ABC’s schedule, she cites cartoons such as “Ghostbusters,” “Beetlejuice,” and ''Winnie the Pooh.”

“I’m delighted by the fact that ‘Winnie the Pooh’ is doing well on our schedule,” she says. “It’s a show based on books. We still look at books and toys to develop shows. Right now, there are no hit toys.”

On the question of why ABC and the other networks do not offer more educationally oriented shows, Ms. Trias again cites market considerations.

“If the networks could be assured that they and their affiliates were going to benefit financially from putting on a children’s educational show, I’m sure they would consider it,” she says. “But we’re still a business.”

On independent television stations, which especially target children in the afterschool hours, schedules are also dominated by syndicated cartoons, many of which are the product-based shows critics describe as little more than a long advertisement for a toy.

One positive trend broadcasting lobbyists point to, however, is that children appear to be tiring of the product-based genre. Among syndicated programs, says Mr. Wright of the nab’s children’s-TV committee, “none of the 10 most popular shows are closely associated with a line of action figures.”

Cable Influence

One of the largest sources of children’s programming now is cable, however, and it is not subject to the fcc broadcast regulations or to the current bills in the Congress.

Pay services like The Disney Channel and basic cable networks such as Turner Broadcasting, the USA Network, the Family Channel, and Nickelodeon are increasingly targeting the youth audience, according to their officials.

“It is important to not think of children’s TV in black and white terms--that it is either educational and good or commercial and bad,” says Geraldine B. Laybourne, president of Nickelodeon, which bills itself as the only cable network for children.

Nickelodeon does not offer educational programming with specific cognitive goals, but it has won praise for shows like “Kids Court,” in which children solve problems in a courtroom setting, “Mr. Wizard’s World,” an update of the network science show that first aired in the 1950’s, and “Don’t Just Sit There,” a talk show for children hosted by children.

“I don’t believe kids should come home from school and have to watch deadly boring educational shows,” Ms. Laybourne says. “We felt it was much more important that they have an entertainment network that they could watch. The [major] networks are still in their Saturday-morning ghetto.”

Most children’s shows on network television, cable, and even public TV, are aimed at 6-year-olds and up.

Nickelodeon recently debuted “Eureeka’s Castle,” one of the few shows outside of PBS’s “Sesame Street” aimed at 2- to 5-year-olds.

The hour-long daily puppet and animation show, centered around a wizard’s daughter, does not teach numbers and letters like “Sesame Street,” but it does provide preschoolers lessons in everything from sharing to tying shoelaces. It is written by a staff of children’s book authors and has three psychologists as advisers.

“‘Eureeka’s Castle’ is much more interested in affective than cognitive goals,” explains Ms. Laybourne. “We felt it was time to give something to preschoolers.”

It is unlikely, however, that other commercial networks will feel so benevolent toward preschoolers in the near future, she adds.

“Advertisers are not as interested in reaching 2- to 5-year-olds as they are in 6- to 10-year-olds,” Ms. Laybourne explains. “It would be hard for a commercial network to justify the expense we put into ‘Eureeka’s Castle.”’