Regulatory Dodgeball on Kids TV

May 09, 1991

New rules promulgated by the Federal Communications Commission on children's television add up to considerably less than a meaningful blueprint for improving juvenile programming. Instead of tackling the problem -- children's shows that seek to sell products rather than teach or even entertain -- the guidelines merely establish selling parameters for stations and advertisers.

Under these standards, adopted to carry out the Children's Television Act of 1990, commercials during these shows would be limited to 10.5 minutes an hour on weekends and 12 minutes an hour on weekdays; stations and cable operators would be required to keep records on their efforts to provide educational programming; shows based on toys would be allowed so long as ads for the product don't appear during the show.

Among the strongest rules is the requirement obligating stations to demonstrate that they served the educational and informational needs of children. The import, however, is compromised by the fact that the commission has set no minimum amount of such programming.

The agency might well have stopped there. A central aim of the law passed last year by Congress was to hold broadcasters more accountable for what they put on the air for children, a reversal of the substantial deregulation policy adopted by the FCC in 1984 during the Reagan years. Among the legislation's chief targets were the marketing alliances that have proliferated between program producers and advertisers in the wake of such phenomenally popular toys as He-Man, Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtles and Super Mario Brothers. These toys have not only inspired shows but in some cases their manufacturers have actually helped produce the programs.

These new federal guidelines do nothing to discourage this practice. Children's advocates had urged that the FCC classify shows as commercials if the commissioners deemed they were created to sell a product rather than entertain. The commission demurred, saying such a rule would hurt shows such as "Sesame Street," which has spawned thousands of toys. Such a comparison is hardly valid. Anyone who has watched 10 minutes of "Sesame Street" and "Teen-age Mutant Turtles" knows there is a world of difference between these two television programs.

In a letter to the FCC, Senators Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Tim Wirth of Colorado said the agency's approach "obviously fails to accomplish the goal of protecting children from advertising content disguised as programming." They're right. The FCC may have carried out the letter of the law in setting guidelines, but it stopped far short of advancing the spirit of the legislation designed to improve children's television.

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