WASHINGTON — In a sharp challenge to the broadcasting industry and the Federal Communications Commission, the House on Wednesday voted to limit the number of commercials that can air on children's television shows, saying they have a negative effect on young viewers.
The bill, which marks Congress' most serious attempt to regulate the highly lucrative field of children's television, also requires broadcasters to provide programming that meets the educational needs of children or risk losing their licenses.
House members approved the legislation 328 to 78 and sent it to the Senate, where sponsors believe it has a good chance of passing. The Reagan Administration opposes the bill.
Under the legislation, the FCC would be required to issue regulations limiting advertising on children's television shows to 10 1/2 minutes per hour on weekends, and to 12 minutes per hour on weekdays.
The regulations would take effect in 1990. Currently, there are no limits on the number of commercials that can be aired on children's shows.
"There is a growing consensus that children's television is a disgrace," said Rep. Terry L. Bruce (D-Ill.), who introduced the bill. "We're putting the FCC on notice that we're serious about protecting children from this kind of unlimited advertising."
The bill does not, however, address the issue of so-called "program-length commercials," in which toys and other products for children are presented as featured characters in full-length broadcasts. Sponsors of the legislation had been critical of such programming but dropped provisions against it in a compromise with broadcasters.
But opponents charged that even the compromise legislation violates free speech guarantees and said sponsors have no idea how many television commercials, if any, are truly harmful to children. They added that more research is needed before Congress adopts such sweeping legislation.
"We don't know what the real impact of all this is," said Rep. Tom Tauke (R-Iowa). "And if these commercials are so bad, shouldn't we be extending this ban across the board, to all the other shows which children watch as well?"
The issue surfaced in 1984, when the FCC rescinded voluntary guidelines that limited the number of children's commercials, as part of a broader action deregulating television commercials. Under those guidelines, the industry had voluntarily limited commercials on children's television shows to 12 minutes per hour on weekdays and to 9 1/2 minutes on weekends.
FCC officials also dropped considerations of a station's commercial practices in the license renewal process, saying the broadcasting industry should police itself and that the federal government should not intrude into the process.
Since then, however, critics have charged that the number of commercials on children's TV is increasing, and they complain that the FCC shows no signs of taking corrective action.
"What we're saying with this bill is that television has an obligation to provide an educational function for children . . . not just display the latest toy," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). "We're saying that living up to that obligation is now federal policy."
In a key provision, the legislation requires the FCC to consider, as part of the license renewal process, the extent to which broadcasters have devised educational programs for children. The requirement was put into statutory language "so it could not be disregarded by the FCC," said an aide on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which drafted the bill.
Last year, an appeals court for the District of Columbia agreed with attorneys representing Action for Children's Television, an advocacy group, and ruled that the FCC had improperly rescinded its earlier limits on commercials for children's shows. The court ordered the agency to reconsider the issue.
Congress, however, "was not about to wait for this FCC to decide whether to act, or when to act," said the committee aide. "There was strong support for this bill because of the belief that it would accomplish something in the near future."
Some sponsors, however, conceded that the legislation would have only a minimal impact unless parents monitor shows carefully.
"Ultimately, it is the responsibility of parents to deal with these concerns . . . not the government and not the broadcasting industry," said Rep. Daniel Coats (R-Ind.). "We're kidding ourselves if we think otherwise."