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`GI Joe' as Educational TV?

ASK any school-age child: Saturday mornings were made for cartoons. And now, as if to give the old fare new legitimacy, broadcasters are redefining some long-running cartoons as educational.

This is in response to the Children's Television Act of 1990, which was intended to boost the number of "educational and informational" TV programs for children. But a recent study conducted by the Center for Media Education documents that this well-intentioned law gave stations a deliberately vague standard.

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As a result, many broadcasters are making only token efforts to provide credible programs, as the lineup attests. Existing cartoons like "The Jetsons," "Super Mario Brothers," and even "GI Joe" now qualify as "educational."

One station calls "GI Joe" educational because it teaches "social consciousness and responsibility." But GI Joe is a "hero" who solves problems with violence. Is that a lesson in responsibility?

Some broadcasters are making an effort to implement fully the 1990 law. Public television's "Ghostwriter," a program in which children solve puzzles with words, has received praise. So has "Real News For Kids," produced by Turner Broadcasting, and "Scratch," a show addressing teenage issues that airs on a local station in Detroit.

But there's another catch. The law does not designate when educational programs must air, so stations are scheduling some potentially useful shows before 6:30 a.m. or during school hours, when most children can't watch them.

The new law should not dictate uniformity in children's programming. Rather, it ought to bring about more choice for kids, helping them learn more now and become more productive citizens in the future.

That was Congress's intent, and commercial broadcasters should not undermine it by slapping "educational" labels where they don't belong or by putting substantial programs in marginal slots.

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