The protracted backyard brawl at the FCC over whether local stations must set aside three hours of educational programming for children a week may be nearing a compromise solution.
FCC chairman Reed Hundt has been a strong proponent of the three-hour-a-week rule, but has met resistance from commissioner James Quello, who is against the prescribed mandate because he believes that such a quantifiable figure violates a station’s first amendment rights. The three-hour system has support in Congress and at the White House.
Complicating matters is that proponents want to tie broadcast license renewal to station compliance of the three-hour rule. With the dispute unresolved, and the license renewal process having begun June 3, stations are in the dark as to how they can comply with regulations that have yet to be set.
Commissioner Quello has offered a compromise plan described by an official in his office as a ‘non-first amendment-intrusive way to get to a place where we all want to be.’ The compromise avoids stipulating an hourly broadcast requirement, but instead offers an hourly determination based on the average amount of qualified children’s programming that all broadcasters air. It stipulates that stations that don’t meet the average number of hours can make up the difference by engaging in off-the-air efforts that lead viewers directly to qualifying programs on other stations in their market.
The compromise plan is non-retroactive. Stations currently up for renewal would have their licenses extended another three years. In return, broadcasters must submit a plan to the FCC on how they intend to comply with the Children’s Television Act under the agreed compromise plan. They would then be evaluated at the end of the incremental license extension period. ‘Commissioner Quello says picking a number out of hat [for required hours] in June 1996, and trying to apply it to people who are running on records compiled prior to 1996, isn’t fair, because they didn’t know what mark they were supposed to be shooting at,’ the official said.
According to the FCC, stations are mixed on the idea. Some favor the compromise because it gets them out of a retroactive application, while others are concerned that they are only getting a short-term license renewal, instead of a new eight-year renewal, even though they already meet the proposed requirements for educational programming.