WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court Friday ordered the Federal Communications Commission to review its 1984 decision deregulating the content of children's television because the FCC had "failed sufficiently to justify its action."
In a unanimous opinion by Judge Kenneth Starr, an appointee of President Reagan, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the FCC's conservative majority had failed to consider the special needs of children in determining whether programming for this age group could be exempt from longstanding guidelines that have required a separation between program content and commercials.
The court, ruling on a petition by Action for Children's Television, said the commission's 1984 report failed to address evidence the group had presented indicating that market forces don't regulate the commercial content of children's television.
The children's television group had contended during the FCC rule-making procedure that market forces would not guarantee high-quality programs for young viewers.
ACT, headed by Boston attorney Peggy Charren, has criticized the major television networks for airing cartoon shows to essentially promote toys based on the characters.
"We won so big on this I think the FCC is going to have to reimpose commercial guidelines on children's television programs that will stop this flood of toy-based shows that are in the editorial control of the toy companies," Charren said.
Deciding that deregulation has had no effect on children's programs "would be such a preposterous position for the commission to take that even this commission will not be able to take it in public," she said.
In its ruling, the court said "Our view of the FCC's actions in this case fails to honor a 'reasoned basis' adequate to justify the FCC's termination of the children's commercialization guidelines."
Despite evidence presented by ACT, "the FCC appears at first to have overlooked entirely the existence of the children's guidelines."
The court noted that it issued a clarification of its 1984 rule to indicate that its deregulation of television applied to children's television.
"Even in response to that call for clarification, the commission deigned to fashion only two sentences (and two moderately pertinent footnotes), explaining in the most cursory fashion that deregulation of children's television commercialization was 'consistent with the general de-emphasis of qualitative guidelines' and that commercials help support children's programming," the ruling said.
In his opinion, Starr noted that "the commission's bare-bones incantation of two abbreviated rationales cannot do service as the requisite reasoned basis for altering its long-established policy.
"For almost 15 years, the FCC's regulation of children's television was founded on the premise that the television market does not function adequately when children make up the audience," Starr said.
Starr wrote that "without explanation the commission has suddenly embraced what had theretofore been an unthinkable bureaucratic conclusion that the market had in fact operated to restrain the commercial content of children's television."