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FCC and 7 A.M. Follies

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IT'S 7 o'clock Saturday morning. The kids come bounding into the bedroom dressed, beds made (!), and breathlessly asking if they can fire up the television to watch two hours of educational programs.

What's wrong with this picture? Outside of public television and a cable channel or two, it is hard to find much education or information aired Saturday mornings, despite the 1990 Children's Television Act.

That troubles the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts. Mr. Markey, who chairs the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, has scheduled hearings for tomorrow on enforcement of the act. The act requires broadcasters to show their commitment to the educational needs of youngsters when they renew their licenses.

His committee's review is needed; the law is extremely vague. The measure's framers tried to establish a principle without restricting freedom of speech. But while vague guidelines let some stations off the hook by airing "G.I. Joe," they also leave the license-renewal process vulnerable to subjective judgments about what constitutes educational or informational programs. That is of little help to a broadcaster trying to comply with the law or a regulator trying to enforce it.

Last week, the FCC announced that it no longer views shows such as "The Jetsons" or "The Flintstones" as educational. The agency also has held up license renewals for seven TV stations, looking for stronger evidence of a commitment to children's programming. These are useful steps; they send a strong signal that the days of "Stunt Dawgs" as teachers of youth are ending.

If the law is to be retained, greater definition is needed, as well as tough enforcement. If the act can identify shows like "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" as desirable, it is possible to develop guidelines that meet the law's objective without leading to bland uniformity or an undue infringement on freedom of speech.


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