Jul 1 2002

Abandoned Children

Networks passing the buck on educational responsibilities

Television networks are abandoning their responsibility to provide educational children’s programming—one of a dwindling few public interest obligations that remain for commercial broadcasters. One after another, major networks have said they are unhappy with the profit they’re making on kids TV, so they’re quitting.

As outlined in the 1990 Children’s Television Act, and detailed in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, broadcast TV networks are required to provide three hours a week of educational or informative programming for children 16 and under. But in the last few years, networks have declared that competition from cable channels makes producing kids TV insufficiently enriching for them. “Broadcasters and their advertisers see educational programming as the TV equivalent of leafy green vegetables,” the Los Angeles Times reported (2/23/02). “They’re being force-fed a restriction that drains profits.”

In response, networks have skirted the rules by farming out their responsibilities. CBS leased its Saturday morning programming slot to Nickelodeon (owned, like CBS, by Viacom) two years ago. NBC contracted with Discovery Networks in December 2001. And Fox recently announced plans to sell off its children’s programming slot to 4Kids, a company specializing in cartoons designed to sell toys. (It’s responsible for Pokemon.) ABC already shared programming and production costs for its Saturday morning lineup with corporate cousin Disney Channel.

If not for the requirements, “we probably would have programmed [Saturday mornings] with something else,” NBC West Coast president Scott Sassa complained to reporters (L.A. Times, 12/7/01). Nevertheless, the big three networks claim the deals they’ve cut will keep them in compliance with the rules.

Fox, meanwhile, was able to sell its A.M. Saturday slot for much more than the others ($25 million a year vs. NBC’s $8 million), in good part because they did not require bidders to meet the educational requirement. With 4Kids executive Joe Garrity making clear, “We’re in the entertainment business, not education” (L.A. Times, 2/23/02), the network has yet to explain how it will comply.

Learning from The Jetsons

It isn’t that broadcasters ever knocked themselves out to embrace the law’s spirit; remember the Tennessee station that claimed that The Jetsons “instructs children about the world in the year 2000” (U.S. News & World Report, 10/12/92)? Or the claim that pizza-eating Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were teaching kids about nutrition and physical fitness (New York Times, 10/4/92)? A 1999 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center (Denver Post, 6/29/99) found that one-fifth of programming presented as educational had “little or no educational value.”

And why would TV executives bother? The FCC has never denied a license renewal or even challenged a station for failing to meet the educational requirements. As Barbara Kreisman, chief of the FCC’s video services division, told the L.A. Times (2/23/02), “We don’t like to get involved with issues of quality. We defer to the judgment of broadcasters.”

All that deference has led to some pretty lackluster programming. As children’s television pioneer Peggy Charren put it (Washington Post, 1/19/02), “It’s hard to get terribly upset” about the networks getting out of the kids TV business, “since when they were in it they did so badly at it.” What galls is the abnegation of responsibility represented by the networks’ simply auctioning off a public resource. If you can’t fulfill your public interest requirements, your license ought to go to someone who can; but some observers are instead spying a potential trend, in which “cash-strapped networks lease other poorly performing time periods to the highest bidder” (L.A. Times, 1/18/02).

“Most parents would say that three hours a week is a pretty paltry price for broadcasters to pay for a free license and the right to make millions of dollars from programs throughout the week,” points out Rep. Ed Markey (D.—Mass.), a sponsor of the Children’s Television Act (L.A. Times, 2/23/02). Adds Charren (L.A. Times, 12/12/01), “If they’re not going to do that, it’s my spectrum and I want it back.”