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REWRITING THE RULES

Few Shows for Younger Set?

Activist group says media mergers mean cutbacks in programming for children. Broadcasters dispute the findings.

May 21, 2003|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

Bye-bye, "Bill Nye the Science Guy."

Hello, "Judge Judy"?

TV station mergers in Los Angeles are accelerating the decline in children's programming on broadcast stations, according to a study to be released today by a children's advocacy group.

The report by Oakland-based Children Now suggests that media consolidation spurs station owners to cut back on the hours and series devoted to kids in favor of more lucrative adult programs. And for the children's fare that remains, the stations rely more heavily on reruns of shows from other networks they own, the study says.

Major networks immediately disputed the findings, saying children's programming merely has shifted from broadcast television toward cable, not just in Los Angeles but nationwide.

The questions surrounding children's shows mirror a larger debate about the public responsibility of broadcasters as the Federal Communications Commission completes a major review of media ownership rules. Children Now has submitted its findings to the FCC, which is expected to relax some broadcast restrictions in a vote set to occur by June 2.

"The study gives us a frightening peek into the future of children's television," said Patti Miller, the advocacy group's director.

According to the study, Los Angeles' top seven broadcast stations air about 50% less children's programming today than they did five years ago, a trend blamed in part on the lower profitability of children's shows because of government-set advertising restrictions.

In a further shift, the study says, Los Angeles TV stations that belong to the same owner slashed their children's programming in some cases at nearly twice the rate of stations that are not part of so-called duopolies. The finding is significant because the FCC is considering changes that would permit more such dual-ownership situations around the country.

According to the study, children's programming on KCAL-TV Channel 9 plummeted 89% -- to the legally required minimum of three hours a week -- in the five-year period examined. The station was bought last year by Viacom Inc., which also owns KCBS-TV Channel 2.

"Bill Nye the Science Guy" is just one of the programs that disappeared from KCAL as children's shows dropped to four from 17, the study found. Meanwhile, some non-child-oriented shows are on air more than ever before. "Judge Judy" -- a courtroom show produced by Viacom-owned Paramount Domestic Television -- runs on both KCAL and KCBS.

Representatives of Viacom, which was provided a copy of the study, declined to comment. Some programming changes noted in the study occurred before Viacom bought KCAL from Young Broadcasting Inc. last year.

KCOP-TV Channel 13 aired 14 children's series in 1998 but only four earlier this year after its purchase in 2001 by News Corp., which also owns KTTV-TV Channel 11.

By comparison, children's programming fell far less at KTLA-TV Channel 5 and Walt Disney Co.-owned KABC-TV Channel 7, and the number of children's shows increased at General Electric Co.-owned KNBC-TV Channel 4, the study found. Those stations are not part of TV duopolies. Tribune Co. owns KTLA and the Los Angeles Times.

KTTV General Manager David Boylan questioned whether the study really showed a link between media consolidation and children's programming.

"The reduction in children's programming is really a result of competition from cable channels that now specialize in that genre," he said. "It has nothing to do with duopolies."

Many of the cartoons that once aired on KTTV and KCOP now run on cable on AOL Time Warner Inc.'s Cartoon Network, Boylan said. In addition, those stations' children's programming declined when News Corp. sold Fox Family, a cable network, to Disney. Fox Family had provided several children's programs that also aired on Fox TV and News Corp.-owned stations.

Nationwide, about 85% of Americans receive television through cable or satellite, rather than from over-the-air broadcasts.

But the rise of cable doesn't relieve broadcasters of their public interest obligations to provide quality kids' programming, Miller of Children Now noted. All seven of the Los Angeles stations examined in the study are meeting at least the government-set minimum of three hours of children's programming a week.

The study didn't explore why duopolies cut back more aggressively on kids' shows. Miller speculated that the trend was caused by companies' seeking to maximize joint advertising sales at co-owned stations.

"They might think they have a better chance of that with adult programming than with programming for kids," she said.

The study also found that children's programming on all Los Angeles TV stations is four times more likely than five years ago to be "repurposed," or run on more than one channel or network, a practice that the group says diminishes the originality and quality of such shows.

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