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Differing on Lesson Plan for Kids' TV

Television: Networks take varying approaches to decide what is 'educational' under the new FCC guidelines.


NEW YORK — With a unanimous vote that belied three years of opposition by the TV industry, the Federal Communications Commission last week passed guidelines requiring broadcasters to air three hours of educational programming for children per week.

The move--the first public-interest requirements on broadcasters in 20 years--was hailed by President Clinton and children's TV advocates.

But what exactly is "educational" programming as defined by the new guidelines?

According to the new rules, which strengthen an existing definition of educational programming and set hourly standards for the first time, broadcasters must provide three hours per week of programming "specifically designed to meet the educational needs of children under the age of 16," with education being "a significant purpose." The programs must air between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.

It will be up to broadcasters to say which of their shows qualify as "educational" under the new rules. But they will be subject to new scrutiny at the FCC and among the public: They will have to identify on the air and in TV listings which shows they consider educational.

TV stations are the ones who must fulfill the FCC requirements, but it is the broadcast networks who provide the bulk of shows their local stations count. Broadcasters have until September 1997 to meet the three-hour standard, but they must begin identifying which shows they count as educational in January.

CBS and ABC are planning to add new shows for children next season. CBS--which promised the government last year to air three hours of educational shows per week by 1997 as part of the sale of CBS to Westinghouse--is adding "Bailey Kipper's P.O.V.," a new series from the creators of "Beakman's World," along with "Secrets of the Cryptkeeper's Haunted House."

CBS already has one hour of educational programming in "Beakman's World" and "National Geographic's Really Wild Animals." With the new programs, CBS will have two hours of educational shows on the air for next season, said Lucy Johnson, the head of children's and daytime programming for the network.

This fall, ABC is revamping its Saturday morning schedule, adding "Flash Forward," a live-action series about two best friends, from the Disney Channel and "Brand Spanking New Doug," the new adventures of the gentle hero of Nickelodeon's popular series. The network counted "Winnie the Pooh" and the "Free Willy" cartoon series as educational shows this season, but they have been canceled. Including an hour of "Doug," "Flash Forward" and "ABC Weekend Special," ABC will have two hours of educational shows per week on the air next season, said Linda Steiner, head of children's programming at ABC.

NBC does not plan to add any new educational shows for children, saying it has 2 1/2 hours per week of educational programming.

NBC says it believes "Saved by the Bell," a long-running sitcom the network "retrofitted" several years ago with lessons about drinking and other "pro-social" messages for teenagers on Saturday morning, qualifies.

"We were surprised when 'Saved by the Bell' was mentioned in a 1989 congressional report as the kind of educational show networks ought to be airing," NBC Executive Vice President John Miller said in an interview. "But we thought, 'Let's bring in an educational consultant and see how many episodes would qualify.' "

Today, Miller said, each episode of "Saved by the Bell" is a "morality play" with an educational message and an educational consultant involved with each script.

Miller said NBC also intends to count as educational two other sitcoms from its Saturday morning "teen block," "California Dreams" and "Hang Time"--along with "NBA Inside Stuff," a show produced by the National Basketball Assn. and hosted by NBC sportscaster Ahmad Rashad.

The networks says some of the shows qualify as educational under the new FCC guidelines because they have "pro-social" messages and have been created with the input of educational advisors.

But the president of the Fox Children's Network, Margaret Loesch, has a different interpretation of the intent of the FCC guidelines. While she said she thinks properly crafted "pro-social" educational shows should count, Loesch emphasized that she believes the public and the FCC want the new guidelines to result in more shows that are curriculum-based, like "Bill Nye, the Science Guy" or "Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego?"

"I believe the expectation of the public is that we'll have more shows that impart some kind of curriculum, like science or geography, in a framework that kids will watch," Loesch said. "I'll be very disappointed if all we end up doing is playing games and counting shows that have little educational value."

Fox is developing new shows about the environment, exercise for couch potatoes and other topics. And Fox has a new show coming called "C-Bear and Jamal," which stars an African American child and was developed with Los Angeles educators who wanted a show about values.

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