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Children's TV Rules Do Work

January 26, 1998|KATHRYN C. MONTGOMERY | Kathryn C. Montgomery is president of the Center for Media Education, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., that led the effort to strengthen rules on children's broadcast programming

Readers of Paul Farhi's story on children's TV ("Kids Don't Like 'Broccoli Television,' " Calendar, Jan. 6) may have gotten the mistaken impression that the new Federal Communications Commission guidelines on children's educational television are not working.

Since it took effect on Sept. 1, 1997, the "three-hour rule" on the 1990 Children's Television Act has significantly altered the landscape of educational children's television, ushering in a crop of more than three dozen educational programs on commercial TV.

A medium once dominated by violent cartoons and program-length commercials for toys now has programs specifically designed to educate and inform children. And while CBS executive Martin Franks laments that "no one watches" educational programs, there is much evidence to the contrary.


In fact, other educational shows on commercial television are doing well. For example, "One Saturday Morning," ABC's new two-hour block of educational programs, reaches nearly 1.7 million children, making it No. 1 in its time period, where it beats out kids' noneducational shows on other channels. I have been told that "Popular Mechanics for Kids," a new educational syndicated show (which gets very little promotion from the stations that air it), already garners an audience 70% the size of that for "Beast Wars"--one of the most popular, heavily marketed, noneducational shows that has been on the air for at least two seasons. And 30 years of public television has demonstrated that kids will flock to well-produced, engaging educational programming like "Sesame Street," "Barney" and "Arthur."

The article chose to focus only on CBS' decision to cancel the current Saturday lineup of educational programs because of low ratings. We don't understand why it failed to report that CBS had also announced its slate of educational programs for next season, to be produced by Canadian-based Nelvana Limited, producers of the highly popular PBS series "The Magic Bus."

Because commercial broadcasters don't have much experience creating programs designed to educate and inform kids, we should expect some trial and error during this first year or so.

As everyone in the industry knows, there are precious few overnight success stories in television programming. But the new genre of quality educational children's shows on commercial television will succeed only if broadcasters commit competitive marketing dollars to them and give them a chance to grow in a properly promoted marketplace. You can't expect kids to tune into shows that they don't know about.

CBS shouldn't be surprised at the poor ratings its programs generated. It is apparent to me and others familiar with children's television that the network gave these shows almost no budget for promotion and buried them in an adult schedule where children wouldn't expect to find them.

The same network that just announced it will spend $500 million a year for NFL football games has invested hardly anything in its programs for children. We find it somewhat disingenuous for CBS executives to argue that they tried but it didn't work, given such a lackluster effort.

Providing quality educational programs for America's children is a very small price for the profitable broadcasting industry to pay for its current free use of the public airwaves. Indeed, the industry repeatedly trades on its "public trustee" status to win favorable policies in Washington, most recently additional "digital spectrum" worth between$40 billion and $60 billion.

American parents expect the leaders of the television business to take their responsibilities to children seriously. We call on the FCC to investigate the level of promotion provided for noneducational "kidvid" shows, and to challenge broadcasters to provide an equal level of promotional coverage and investment for its quality educational programs.

The child advocates, parents and educators who fought for better children's television are watching closely to see how well broadcasters respond to this new mandate, and we plan to make our concerns known to the FCC at TV license renewal time.


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