American broadcasters are taking very seriously the Federal Communications Commission’s new regulations requiring stations to air three hours a week of educational children’s programming. Station executives will be looking to satisfy the mandate as they comb the booths at the NATPE market.
Stations intend to comply with the new rules, says Dennis Wharton, spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the industry organization for television and radio broadcasters.
‘We can support the rules,’ adds Wharton. The requirements are the outcome of negotiations between the NAB and the White House, he says, and represent the minimal amount of regulation. ‘These rules are flexible enough to allow us to meet our obligations to children while not being too rigid.’
Stations have a ‘good incentive’ to comply, says David Oseland, program director with the independent station WCFC-TV in Chicago, Illinois. Broadcasters that do not fulfill the requirements could lose their license at renewal time. WCFC-TV is reviewing its children’s programming to be certain that it meets the mandate.
Broadcasters can expect that the FCC will ‘be diligent’ in enforcing the new rules because the measures were adopted in response to broadcasters’ non-compliance with the Children’s Television Act (CTA) of 1990 and the FCC’s initial rules enforcing the CTA, says Bob Ramsey, director of programming and promotions with Dallas, Texas-based KDAF-TV, which is affiliated with Fox Children’s Network and Warner Bros. The FCC is also keeping a close watch on stations’ efforts by requiring them to file quarterly reports in their station records, which will be submitted annually to the commission.
KDAF-TV is interpreting the regulations ‘very conservatively,’ says Ramsey. ‘We’re not trying to stretch anything. If anything, we’re probably under-reporting.’ The station already airs three to four hours of educational kids shows a week, including Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego?, Life with Louie and Bobby’s World.
ABC affiliate WAAY-TV of Huntsville, Alabama, currently receives two hours of educational children’s programming a week from ABC, including two half-hours of Brand Spanking New Doug, Flash Forward and ABC Weekend Special, and pre-empts a half-hour of cartoons to air the educational series Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures, says program director Debi Bradford. ABC has committed to top up its educational kids offerings by another hour next season. As well, ABC supports its educational children’s programs with initiatives, such as a directory of shows distributed to teachers to help them plan curriculum around programs, under its Children First umbrella campaign. But Bradford notes that, since WAAY-TV airs its children’s programming on Saturday mornings, the start of sports games or other afternoon programming could be cut in order to comply with the rules.
CBS-owned KCNC-TV in Denver, Colorado, already satisfies the mandate with two hours of programming from CBS, and one hour of its choosing, says program director Wendy Holmes. Among its educational series is News for Kids, a half-hour, weekly news and information program that the station has produced since 1983 and that is syndicated throughout the U.S., with a 90-percent clearance. Children age nine to 14 host the show and do all of the reporting.
Adhering to the rules should ‘work smoothly,’ says Kim Matthews, an attorney with the Policy and Rules Division of the FCC’s Mass Media Bureau, because stations have enough time to acquire additional programming if needed. Stations were required to identify shows in their current lineups that they consider to be educational by the start of this month, but they have until the fall to come up with three hours of programming.
Although broadcasters plan to abide by the regulations, disagreement about how to define educational programming could lead to a problem in complying with the rules.
‘You know what’s educational if you turn on your television set,’ says Mary Brenneman, executive producer of News for Kids at KCNC-TV. A recent poll of a room full of station executives indicated that broadcasters shared ‘the same general feeling’ about what shows fit the bill.
‘Broadcasters know that educational and informational has to be a key component of any program that they declare to be part of the three-hour mix,’ says the NAB’s Wharton.
Details such as the number of hours and the length of shows necessary are more specific than the previous guidelines, says WAAY-TV’s Bradford, which should give broadcasters a better understanding of what is required of them.
But while the regulations provide less room for discretion, others say they are still not cut and dried.
‘They [the FCC] have failed to say what they feel is educational and informational,’ says KDAF-TV’s Ramsey.
The rules make it clear that wrap-arounds, referring to primarily entertainment programs that tack on a moral or positive message at the end, do not qualify, but they do not list examples of shows that are appropriate, says Tracy Swann, program director of UPN affiliate WBFS-TV of Miami, Florida. She predicts that this ‘vagueness’ could result in ‘some stations calling things educational that aren’t necessarily educational.’
The FCC will monitor broadcasters’ performance for three years based on the children’s programming reports filed by stations, says the FCC’s Matthews. The commission will review these reports at the end of the three-year period and, if necessary, will take action to ensure that stations are complying with the rules.
As stated in the new rules, the FCC’s intent is to allow broadcasters to choose shows based on their good judgment. The commission d’es not wish to infringe upon broadcasters’ right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment by outlining too strict guidelines. As well, the FCC expects that the new rules will equip parents with more information to assist in ensuring that stations follow the rules.
‘What we hope is that this will empower parents to take a greater role in monitoring their children’s viewing habits,’ says the NAB’s Wharton. If parents encourage their kids to watch educational shows, their influence could drive ratings up.
Ratings for educational programs are a big concern among broadcasters.
‘Audiences for children’s TV shows, and not just educational shows, are dropping dramatically,’ says the NAB’s Wharton. Fewer kids are tuning in to television this season compared to previous seasons.
‘In general, FCC-friendly shows are lower-rated,’ says WBFS-TV’s Swann, because children aren’t as entertained by educational shows as they are by lighter series. But WBFS-TV’s success with Captain Planet, she notes, proves that educational shows can attract viewers if they are also entertaining. She believes the regulations may have the positive effect of raising the quality of educational programs overall.
In fact, the bigger threat to ratings for children’s programs on stations comes not from the need to comply with the regulations but from cable television, particularly Nickelodeon, says one program director at a small-market Fox station. Cable stations are not required to obey the same regulations.
In the rules, the FCC says that while ‘television reaches 98 percent of all American homes,’ more than a third do not have access to cable, and low-income households are less likely than those with high incomes to subscribe to cable. As well, ‘as trustees of the public’s airwaves,’ broadcasters have an obligation to serve the public interest.
Will the increase in educational programming on commercial stations threaten public television? Absolutely not, says Steve Bass, vice president and manager of television stations for WGBH-TV, WGBX-TV and WGBY-TV of Massachusetts. Commercial stations will offer more educational fare, but they will continue to operate under different conditions than public television because their program choices are influenced by the need to bring in enough viewers to appeal to advertisers, which is not a concern for PBS stations. WGBH-TV already airs as much as 65 hours of educational programming a week, says Bass, and the regulations could boost the demand for series created by WGBH-TV, such as Arthur, which is co-produced with Cinar Films of Montreal, Canada.
The new mandate will have a visible impact on NATPE, as broadcasters seek to add educational children’s shows to their fall schedules and producers and syndicators put more effort into pitching their FCC-friendly series, says the NAB’s Wharton. ‘It’s clear that there’s a new market out there for children’s educational programming.’
But demand for educational series may not be as high as anticipated because most of the networks are already airing two to two-and-a-half hours of educational programming, says Wharton. Still, a proportion of stations falls below the three-hour requirement.
The NAB and multimedia company JP Kids (see story page 26) will be serving up a weekly, half-hour public affairs series for teens to meet the expected demand. The NAB has provided nearly US$180,000 through its Education Foundation to fund the pilot of DeBUNK. This project is just one of the ways the NAB demonstrates its ongoing commitment to high-quality programming for children, says Wharton. Every year, the organization recognizes broadcasters’ initiatives in educating children with its Service to Children Awards.
‘I think we have to resign ourselves as an industry that this is the will of the Congress and the commission,’ says KDAF-TV’s Ramsey. ‘And producers and distributors [of children's programming] have to think about entertaining programming that is also educational. This is something that’s not going to go away.’