F.C.C. Panel Cannot Agree on Minimum TV Programming

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The Federal Communications Commission adopted a proposed rule last week that would clarify its definition of educational programming under the Children's Television Act. But commissioners indicated that they cannot reach agreement on a more controversial proposal to require stations to broadcast a minimum amount of educational programming.

For more than two years, the F.C.C. has been studying proposals to strengthen the 1990 law, which loosely requires broadcasters to air programming "specifically designed" to meet the educational needs of children.

The commission will publish the results in the form of a proposed regulation, although the key section on minimum programming requirements is actually a list of several options for which the F.C.C. is seeking further comment.

One option is to require a set number of hours of educational programming per week. Another proposal, advanced by the F.C.C.'s chairman, Reed E. Hundt, would require at least three hours a week of educational programming per station but would let stations pay others in their markets to air two of the three hours.

Broadcasters argue that the number of educational shows has grown through market forces and that a federal mandate might run afoul of the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.

However, the commission staff cited data from the Walt Disney Company showing that only one of the 30 most-watched children's shows on broadcast television could be considered educational.

Lack of Consensus

Children's-television advocates, who have called for requiring each station to broadcast seven hours of educational shows a week, said they were not satisfied with the options in the proposed rule. But they doubted whether there are enough votes on the commission to adopt any minimum weekly requirement.

"The problem is to get more educational television for children. I don't see how [Mr. Hundt's proposal] improves things," said Peggy Charren, the longtime advocate for children's television who is now a lecturer at Harvard University's education school.

Several commissioners said they agreed with the advocates that broadcasters were not living up to the mandate of the law.

"I have concluded that the programming mandate of the act generally is not being fulfilled," Commissioner Susan Ness said.

Commissioner Rachelle B. Chong said she was glad to see the definition of educational programming tightened under the proposed rule. "Apparently, our old definition was broad enough to drive a truck through," she said.

When the Children's Television Act first went into effect, some stations listed such shows as "Leave It to Beaver," "The Jetsons," and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" as having been designed to educate children. Broadcasters' educational programming is reviewed by the F.C.C. as a condition of the renewal of their licenses.

Under the proposed rule, educational shows would have to be designed to teach children age 16 or younger. Their educational objectives would have to be provided in writing, and they would have to air between 6 A.M. and 11 P.M.

'Time Bomb'

Ms. Chong said she had not made up her mind whether to support a mandated weekly requirement for programming. "My preference is for the industry to take voluntary steps," she said.

Commissioner James Quello said that any attempt by the F.C.C. to mandate a programming minimum would be a "First Amendment time bomb" that would "blow up in court and self-destruct."

Children's-television supporters said Mr. Hundt has been unable to unite a majority of commissioners behind a single proposal.

Jeff Chester of the Center for Media Education, a Washington advocacy group, charged that broadcasters have heavily lobbied the commission over the past two years to "weasel their way out of the Children's Television Act." The center leads a coalition that includes the National PTA, the National Education Association, and the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

Edward O. Fritts, the president of the National Association of Broadcasters, said in a statement that the industry believes the law is working "to increase the amount of children's educational and informational programming" and that "an overly regulatory scheme is not needed."

The F.C.C. will accept comments on the proposal for 90 days after it appears in the Federal Register, and possibly vote on it by October.

Vol. 14, Issue 29

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