Aftershocks of the Federal Communications Commission’s recent ruling on children’s television are still resounding in the industry, making it one of the top issues on the minds of the programming community as they prepare for NATPE. The regulations, which mandate that stations must air at least three hours of educational programming a week or risk losing their licenses, have generated a mix of shock, frustration and, in the most optimistic cases, inspiration.
The guidelines reinforce standards laid out in the Children’s Television Act of 1990, which requires educational programming for children as part of the public-service component of all TV station licenses. But this time, many of the gray areas that have allowed stations either to bury educational shows in predawn time slots or to pass off programs like The Jetsons as educational claiming that it informs kids about the future are spelled out.
While the guidelines take effect September 1997, stations must begin to identify shows with educational content beginning this month. By fall, stations must air three hours a week of core programming or a combination of specials, public-service announcements and other shows equivalent to the required amount of core programming. At a November forum jointly sponsored by Mediascope (a non-profit group that mediates issues between the media industry and government or educators), the Children’s Action Network (a children’s advocacy group) and the Center for Media Education (a non-profit group that watches how media affect the public), FCC chairman Reed Hundt defined core programming as those shows ‘specifically designed to meet the education needs of children as opposed to general audience programming that has some incidental educational value.’ (For an outline of the ruling, see ‘New children’s programming rules for broadcasters’ below.)
But according to Universal Television Entertainment president (UTE) Barbara Fisher, who attended the forum, Hundt resisted spelling out any specific rules. Instead, he told the audience that they, and not government, should determine the guidelines. ‘He was very wary about telling us what it means,’ says Fisher. ‘Somebody brought up a valid concern: Will this be determined by Norman Lear or Jerry Falwell?’
With unclear direction coming from Hundt, Fisher says trying to determine what will pass for FCC-friendly at NATPE is anyone’s guess. Universal continues to develop a kid-friendly science show and a history program, but in terms of meeting FCC requirements, says Fisher, ‘we’re going by the seat of our pants because no one’s quite sure.’
Robby London, senior vice president of creative affairs for DIC Entertainment, admits that educational programming and television violence have always been issues, but, he notes, with the new rules, ‘most of us are shell-shocked. I think we’re all tired of it and want to get back to the business of making programs.’ However, London is worried about the ramifications of the ruling and producers and broadcasters ‘being dictated to by people who don’t understand what we do.’
‘It would be nice if there were a chart with 20 points and if you got 10 points, your show qualified as FCC-friendly,’ laments John Gentile, president of Abrams/Gentile Entertainment (AGE). ‘But nothing like that exists.’ Gentile believes people will be either interpreting the regulations stringently, by seeking shows that mimic a classroom curriculum, or looking at programs that teach kids about social values.
Gentile, like many, is waiting to see how things roll out in ’97 particularly how some programs with questionable educational value fare under the ruling before making major development decisions. What people are bringing to NATPE and what sells well will signal how producers, syndicators and broadcasters are interpreting the ruling.
While some development decisions may be on hold, the ruling has given new life to many old shows. ‘I think producers are blowing the dust off educational programs [stored] in their trunks,’ says Mark Waxman, executive producer of Beakman’s World and Bailey Kipper’s P.O.V. For instance, Bohbot Entertainment & Media, which distributes a wide array of animated action shows, is considering reviving A.J.’s Time Travelers, a live-action show in which a young boy and his pals visit historical figures through a time machine. ‘If we hear that stations are struggling to fill their quota in the next few months, we might work it into the mix,’ says John Hess, senior vice president, domestic distribution at Bohbot. Similarly, BBC Worldwide Americas is bringing back Madison’s Adventures Growing Up Wild, a natural history show that has been out of syndication for several years. The program stars an animated cat named Madison who teaches kids about animals using footage from the BBC Wildlife Library. And AGE is reviving Jelly Bean Jungle, a program it created two years ago for a preschool audience, in which characters work together to settle disputes and solve problems.
Other producers are taking existing shows and working closely with educators and child psychologists to infuse them with some educational merit. MTM Television will be trying to up the educational quota of Bailey Kipper’s P.O.V. by calling in educators to make sure the show meets the regulations. ‘With Bailey, we deal with a lot of social issues,’ says Sharon Hall, vice president of syndication programming at MTM, but ‘we realize we’ll have to hit it harder next season.’
Marjorie Kalins, senior vice president of programming and production at Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), which has emerged as a leader in educational programming with long-running hits such as Sesame Street, casts a critical eye on what some producers are trying to sell as educational. ‘People think if they throw facts around, you’re telling somebody something.’ Under CTW’s guidelines, production of each show starts with a determined set of lesson objectives, which is evaluated by outside educators and child psychologists, then matched with appropriate creative to produce a show. Each show is also critiqued afterward to gauge whether those objectives were met.
While producers are convening educators to discuss their lineups, there’s a growing sentiment in the industry that this time, the FCC is serious and is prepared to enforce the regulations. The temptation to pass off shows of questionable educational value as FCC-friendly is being resisted, and many believe that broadcasters will err on the side of caution when choosing programming. Violating the law will not only be regarded as a disgrace in the industry, but as a public humiliation as well, in part because President Clinton supported the regulations’ principles in his re-election campaign. And one industry spokesperson points out that watchdog groups ‘will be waiting like hawks to test [the regulations].’
Shelley Pasnik, director of children’s programs at the Center for Media Education, agrees that her organization will continue to monitor what is aired, just as it always has. ‘What makes this a unique situation is that not only are child advocacy groups behind [the regulations], but so are parents,’ Pasnik says. ‘It will be an even greater embarrassment [for broadcasters] to get away with the techniques they have in the past.’
But watchdog groups aren’t throwing up the victory flag yet. Vicky Rideout, director of the children and media program at Children Now, an Oakland, California-based child advocacy organization, says she’s cautiously optimistic about compliance. ‘I think the language of the new rules is very lenient, and calls for minimal changes. It depends in large part on good-faith efforts from broadcasters.’
One of the more troubling aspects of the ruling for over-the-air broadcasters is the exclusion of cable stations from compliance with the regulations. All of this comes at a time when ratings for children’s Saturday morning programming are plummeting for the networks. The cable stations, while not soaring, are holding their own. This is a foreboding sign for networks that airing more educational shows, which are often perceived as dry, might only drive more kids to cable. ‘You mention education to kids and they’re out of here,’ says Shelly Hirsch, CEO of Summit Media in New York. ‘I think it’s going to be a simple reason for kids to move to Nickelodeon or the Cartoon Network.’
Hirsch, among others, believes that the cable stations have an unfair advantage, with ‘very biased’ guidelines. The problem with pure educational programming, Hirsch argues, is that by nature it appeals to a narrow age range, which will further depress the networks’ ratings. He predicts that in the end, the FCC will probably compromise and ‘be comfortable with something that has redeeming value and some entertainment value to it.’
Waxman agrees with Hirsch’s concerns about limiting audiences, but believes there’s a way around that. Shows such as Beakman’s World might be over the heads of five-year-olds, he says, but ‘hopefully, they are watching it for the visual style and picking up on the vocabulary,’ and tuning in with their parents. Surprisingly, Waxman adds, more than 50 percent of Beakman’s audience are adults who appreciate the comedic approach to learning, as well as the opportunity to freshen up on the science they have forgotten or never learned. The trick, he says, is filling the show with double entendres that appeal to a wide audience. ‘I try never to be condescending. I try to make shows that I would watch.’
It’s unlikely that the FCC will force stations out of business because of regulation infractions, but complying won’t be an easy task. Waxman, who is developing his third educational show, called Life on Earth, reasons that kids programs have been plagued not by a dearth of good ideas, but by limited budgets, which too often have resulted in poor production values that keep kids away. And with the visually attuned children of the ’90s, he says, it’s essential to keep up a savvy appearance to retain viewers.
While the ruling may be causing innumerable headaches for the industry, UTE’s Fisher notes that ‘it’s forcing people to take stock of what they’re creating and pitching [and to ask themselves], ‘Is this something worthy for kids to be watching?” But while the nebulous guidelines may give show creators more leeway in reshaping their lineups, MTM’s Hall fears that more stringent guidelines could flatten out the spunk and irreverence found in the best kids shows. ‘The worst thing the creative community could do is start turning out sanctimonious stuff,’ she says, adding that all the educational programming that’s succeeded in the past has been clever, such as ABC’s popular Schoolhouse Rock, which uses catchy animation and jingles to teach kids about things as disparate as English grammar and how a bill becomes a law and that won’t change.
Finally, if enforced, the regulations are meant to reshape the notion of what makes a successful commercial kids show. At least that’s what Pasnik is hoping for. ‘I think a fallacy in the industry is that educational means boring,’ she says. ‘It d’esn’t have to be that way, and I think the smarter, more successful producers are aware of that.’