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Old Foes Rekindle Battle Over Children's Television

In this corner, commerce; in that one, activists; in one or the other, Congress

FOR children's television, it was supposed to be the answer: Kids could have their entertainment shows; broadcasters could keep their profits - or most of them; and activists, at long last, could say, "It's a law," when demanding some measure of educational value on commercial fare for children.

The object of all this speculation was the Children's Television Act of 1990.

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A watershed event to many, it governs something that America's children spend more time doing than any other waking activity: watching TV.

The hard-won law - gained after decades of struggle by groups of parents and others - took effect in 1991. It caps commercial time allowed on kids' shows, both broadcast and cable. It also tells the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that it must ask broadcast stations what they've done for kids lately at license-renewal time.

But to many children's-TV activists, there's still a problem: Because of looseness in the law as to what "educational" means (and other flaws), the law has proved toothless, they say. The only gains made since its enactment have come through pressure on commercial broadcasters to live up to its spirit.

In April, the FCC proposed some new rules concerning children's TV, proposals they expect to vote on this fall. The new proposals immediately rekindled a debate that symbolizes the new-old state of children's TV. It's a conflict on the same battleground of commerce and ideology that has been its setting for 30 years. The dispute over what American children get on the tube - and its effect on them - and what they should get, defines "kidvid" today.

One of the FCC's proposed rules would require stations to air at least three hours of educational programming per week.

"We've called for [that] all along," says Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Washington-based Center for Media Education, perhaps the leading children's TV advocacy group and successor to the historic but now-defunct Action for Children's Television. "Without that, the industry will go back to as little as possible, and then the law won't have much impact."

Broadcasters favor status quo

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That same prospect is a hobgoblin for commercial broadcasters. They favor another of the proposals being considered by the FCC: to do nothing, on the premise that things are fine as they are.

"We believe that the [Children's Television Act] is working," says Walt Wurfel, senior spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). Broadcasters "are moving aggressively to provide more suitable children's programming, and government quotas are not needed."

The debate is fueled by certain trends in kids' TV. Among them:

r Stepped-up efforts in the past few years by broadcast and cable to offer what the industry defines as educational shows.

r Little sustained improvement in controlling violence and other excesses on children's television.

r A continued or heightened link between shows and products like toys, with merchandising as the driving force behind much of what is produced for children.

r The growth of a new brand of activism that arms kids with ways of judging what they see on screen.

r Given the current deregulatory political climate, a sense of foreboding by many child advocates at the prospect of a twin loss: reduction or removal of federal funding for kid's fare on public TV and a threat to the existence of the 1990 law itself.

These trends are happening in a country where more than 98 percent of homes have at least one TV, according to Nielsen Media Research. Viewing, as a result, is nearly as integral a part of a child's life as eating and sleeping - although computer use and video games may be eating into the numbers a little. [See chart, left.]

By age 12, a four-hour-a-day habit

TV-watching begins by age 2, and some parents park even younger kids in front of the set. A 15-minute-a-day habit grows rapidly in the next few years to 2-1/2 hours, levels off at about age 8, then leaps to a startling peak of four hours a day by age 12.

It's hard to quantify, says Mary Beth Oliver, assistant professor of Communication Studies at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. "TV viewing is notoriously understated in studies," she says. "Since viewing measurements are based on broadcast and cable, videos are often overlooked," a fact that may add unrecorded hours to a child's viewing habits.

The effect of this heavy-duty tube-watching, according to various sources, is that children see something like 2,000 commercials in a typical year - roughly an hour of ads for every five hours viewed. As a result, kidvid is a huge cash cow.

Anyone who doubts that fact need only ask James McNeal, a professor of communications at Texas A&M at College Station. He's been studying and teaching media data of this kind for some 30 years, and estimates the total revenue for all of kidvid at $735 million in the 1994-95 season. That's what he calls "a safe figure." It may be $800 million, up from about $600 million last year.

Some $200 million of that projected revenue may flow to Fox alone, which has been the ratings leader - partly on the strength of "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers." That half-hour weekday show has been a ratings and revenue winner almost from the time the broadcaster began its Fox Children's Network in 1990.

Nickelodeon, a cable-industry standout, may take in $130 million or more a year. ABC and CBS's revenue from kids' shows has also been rising, Professor McNeal says, "but the major networks may be down a little because of inroads by Fox and Nickelodeon, Turner Cartoon Network, and other outlets."

Joe Abruzzo, former director of research at the Network Television Association, which has now closed shop, confirms this shift. "Saturday morning is still strong for CBS and ABC, but there has been some decline," he says, "because viewing is spread across more alternatives, including PBS, Nickelodeon, and other outlets." (NBC no longer offers children's cartoons on Saturday morning, opting instead for the "Today" show and a block of programs for teens.)

After-school TV is dominated by syndicated cartoons, carried mostly by independent stations and on cable, Mr. Abruzzo says.

Cable alternative for children

Cable represents an alternative for many kids, although that medium still doesn't reach roughly one-third of American homes. "If you add cable, there is more programming for children, and some of it is more diverse - and, some would argue, better," says Ms. Montgomery, "but even there, the imperatives of the advertiser win out."

Nickelodeon is often cited as a channel that owes its success to the nature of cable itself, where "niche" programming and adventurous formats get a chance. [See story, right.]

Herb Scannell, Nickelodeon's executive vice president, puts it this way: "Cable allows for a defined kind of service to exist, a defined audience. ABC, NBC, or CBS in prime time, if they have a show that gets 60 percent kids, they're not going to be happy, because they want to see a mix of adults and kids. On Nickelodeon, if you have a show on prime time that gets 60 percent kids, you're actually happy and you're wondering, 'How do I get to 70 percent?' "

Montgomery says Nickelodeon is a step forward in kids' fare but points out that when created in 1979, Nickelodeon was touted as a noncommercial alternative to Saturday-morning broadcasts. It started running commercials about 10 years ago.

Mr. Scannell concedes that one reason for adding commercials is that "they help pay the bills," but he maintains that their presence "has not changed what I do."

'National wake-up call' needed

But TV people - cable and broadcasters - shouldn't look at kidvid that way at all, according to a wide range of concerned groups and people. One of these is Edward Palmer, president of World Media Partners of Philadelphia, consultants who help developing countries create child-friendly TV.

"We need a national wake-up call," he says, "to help us better appreciate our lapse, and our children's loss, when as much of our young people's time is squandered watching mindless and distorted program fare."

"Unfortunately, the marketplace works against educational programming for children," Montgomery says. "It produces more popular, less educational shows, and not the kind targeted to a specific age group."

Age-specific programs have long been a litmus test for determining a serious commitment to TV that helps children. It is seen on public TV programs like "Sesame Street" and "Barney & Friends."

The beneficial effects are reflected in studies like one by John Wright and Aletha Huston of the Center for Research on the Influence of Television on Children at the University of Kansas. Its results, just issued, show that "Sesame Street" provides a strong educational foundation for preschoolers. They spent more time reading than nonviewers, according to the study, and scored higher on standardized verbal and math tests - irrespective of their parents' education, how well the children spoke English, or the quality of their home life.

The commercial broadcaster, on the other hand, "will always go for the widest age range," Mr. Palmer says, and "that is incompatible with providing something informational and developmentally appropriate for children of different ages. They need age-specific shows for the same reason they need age-specific textbooks."

Toy companies' involvement

"The way programming is created now," Montgomery says, "the toy companies are involved in the packaging and creation of the programming in the first place, to decide how many characters it should have - 'Mighty Morphin Power Rangers' on Fox is an example - so they can figure out how many characters they can make into toys."

What's wrong with that? asks former NAB spokesman Doug Wills. "Educational" children's fare "draws smaller numbers than the entertainment programming. That is a continuing challenge for broadcasters. How do we develop programs that meet the definition but, in the end, can pay for their freight by being attractive to advertisers?"

For Nickelodeon's Scannell, the answer lies outside broadcasting. "The worst thing you can do in pitching a show to Nickelodeon," he says, "is to walk in, plop a toy on the table, and say, 'This is the show.' What they're really saying is, 'Let me tell you about my toy.' "

Yes, he acknowledges, there are toys and other products that have originated on Nickelodeon shows - a practice, he points out, that occurs on PBS programs also. "But what we don't do," he says, "is develop a show based on a toy. To create show ideas, what we do is put producers together with kids. Any show that gets on the air has been seen by kids ahead of time. We've gotten feedback from them."

Violence every hour

But in kidvid, more than commercialization is at stake. Children witness 20 to 25 or more acts of violence per hour on TV, according to several sources. That's much more than adults see in prime time (8-11 p.m.).

"Overall, children's Saturday-morning cartoons, for example, tend to be very violent," says Ms. Oliver, whose views are corroborated by a range of experts. The level of violence has been fairly stable over the years, she adds.

Whether it's cartoons or the live action that is becoming more prevalent on some children's shows, the effect of TV violence is no longer in dispute among the majority of experts. "Evidence shows that violence on TV certainly increases aggressive behavior," Oliver says.

When pressed, those who keep statistics on TV violence concede that a cartoon character springing back unscathed after being flattened by an anvil is weighted the same as a lurid shooting during adult hours. Oliver justifies this kind of research by stating that, in the minds of young viewers, cartoonlike violence on kidvid sanitizes real violence.

The lesson from TV, she says, "is that violence isn't really that harmful. Violence desensitizes adults and kids. It makes them need higher levels of arousal. You start with cartoons, then go to adult violence, like cop shows."

"Yes, there are a lot of missed opportunities," says David Kleeman, director of the American Center for Children's Television, a group run by children's programmers in public, broadcast, and cable TV and designed to improve the medium. "Many shows out there are not as thoughtful as they should be," he delicately puts it.

For Wills, "It's a bum rap. People who complain about 'Mighty Morphin Power Rangers' should watch it more closely. No one gets killed or shot. It's a bunch of choreographed Kung-Fu-fighting heroes against villains. The bad guys always come back to fight another day, and the good guys are there to fend them off. How is that different from what we played as kids? It's a formula as old as television. It goes back to 'The Lone Ranger' and before."

Parents lead the charge

Such exchanges have taken place since at least 1968, when Action for Children's Television was formed in Peggy Charren's Massachusetts kitchen. Initially, Ms. Charren - whom many reformers consider the most important figure in the history of kidvid - was brushed off by FCC officials and industry types. Their attitude tended to be: "What? A mere parent trying to get into the act?"

But letters poured in to the FCC and industry. Newspapers and TV ran stories. The movement, in short, got the TV world's attention, and things started happening. Childhood heroes like Captain Kangaroo stopped serving as pitchmen on the same show they starred in. Stations were warned by the FCC to consider the needs of children.

During the Reagan administration in the 1980s, the reforms largely fell by the wayside as regulations were dismantled. The FCC dropped a ban on the notorious "program-length commercials" - shows starring characters you could go out and buy.

It took another long campaign by activists before the 1990 law became a reality, restoring some of the earlier gains. As for the FCC's proposal to require a specific number of educational programs: If enacted (a dim prospect), it would be the first time stations have been told to air specific hours of kidvid.

Loopholes in TV act

After the 1990 law was enacted, the commission issued standards to use in judging compliance at license-renewal time. "But they were so full of loopholes, you could drive a truck through them," Montgomery says. Stations cited "The Jetsons" as an example of educational programming - because it taught kids what life would be like in the future. "The Flintstones" was a lesson in prehistory.

"What they claimed was 'educational' was ridiculous," Palmer says. Some stations claimed their entire Saturday morning schedule was "educational."

Made aware of this by outraged parents and others, the FCC signaled broadcasters in March 1993 that things had to change.

Broadcasters started searching for legitimately informative shows to add to their schedules. One example was "Beakman's World," a critically praised science program for children that was languishing in the syndication market. CBS added the show to its lineup in 1993. "The industry was scurrying around saying 'Get me an FCC-friendly show - quick!' " Montgomery says.

It was this pressure on the industry that most observers agree has led to the improvement in kidvid since 1993. The FCC agrees that a better definition of "educational shows" must be required of broadcasters.

New TV activists

What isn't agreed - at all - is whether any specific number of such shows will be demanded. If it isn't, many public-interest groups say the industry will quickly revert to the laxer approach. Only public pressure can make commercial TV do right by children, they say.

Meanwhile, new kinds of activists are joining the fray - an array of groups and coalitions helping parents and kids evaluate TV programs in terms of production quality, violent content, and degree of commercialization. Some groups recommend shows from many sources. Some rate content, involving children in ratings videos and other material.

One example, says Palmer, is the media-education movement, teaching children to be critical consumers: "It started in the late 1970s and early '80s and fizzled, but it's coming back with increasing vitality. Those involved hope to alert kids to the forces at work on-screen as they watch. Many researchers have concluded, for example, that kids under 6 or so don't realize commercials are designed to sell products."

But for different children, "the definition of 'quality' means different things," Kleeman says. "Parents don't have to like everything they let their children watch, but they should respect it. Kids need their own culture."

He cites his young daughter's experience watching "Guts," a Nickelodeon game show that, as Kleeman puts it, most people wouldn't want the FCC to use as a standard for "educational" programming.

But girls and boys compete on equal footing against physical challenges, and the show has motivated her to become more physically active. "Now, at the playground, she wants me to give her an obstacle course," Kleeman says, "and she's more athletic.

"The show was not intended as educational, just fun entertainment. But you never can tell. It's a very fine line."

* Last of three parts.

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