NEW YORK — Ending a three-year fight, the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday approved rules requiring television stations to provide three hours of educational programming for children a week beginning next year.
The rules--which broadcasters had opposed until pressured by Congress and President Clinton--are the first public-interest requirements passed by the FCC in two decades.
"Our vote today is the most important vote for children and education ever cast at the commission," said FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, who said the agency had received 20,000 letters and e-mail messages in the last year from people in favor of the three-hour standard.
According to the new rules, the three hours of programming must be "specifically designed to meet the educational needs of children under the age of 16," with education being "a significant purpose" of the shows. The programs must air between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.
It will be up to broadcasters to determine which of their shows are educational and to label them on the air and in listings information. Stations also must cite them as part of their applications for renewal of their federal operating licenses, and they will be subject to scrutiny by the FCC and community groups.
Labeling of educational programs is to begin in January, but stations will have until September 1997 to meet the three-hour-a-week requirement.
Children's TV advocates praised the FCC's decision and said they will be watching what networks and stations air to fulfill the requirements.
"Broadcasters will have to reexamine what they call 'educational,' " said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Children's Media Education Center in Washington.
"From now on, every parent will have some nutritional alternatives on every channel to supplement their children's TV diet," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), author of the Children's Television Act passed by Congress in 1990.
The FCC had recently been deadlocked over the three-hour rule until the Clinton administration helped broker an agreement with the National Assn. of Broadcasters leading up to a July 29 White House "summit" on TV programming for children. More than 200 members of Congress earlier had voiced support.
Television executives had opposed the three-hour quota as an infringement of their 1st Amendment rights to free speech. But they finally gave in because of the political pressure.
FCC Commissioner James Quello joined Hundt and two other commissioners in voting unanimously for the three-hour rule, although he said he still had concerns that the measure could establish a precedent for "future 1st Amendment incursions" on free speech.
The regulations do not apply to cable channels because they are regulated by local municipalities.