Turning Children into TV Critics

August 04, 1993

For adult television viewers, commercials are an interruption in regular programming, a time to break away for a trip to the refrigerator or an invitation to channel surf. For children, a commercial is part of the show. Studies indicate children under 7 pay as much attention to commercials as regular programming. Few kids understand the purpose of a commercial; they don't watch TV with the critical eye of older viewers.

Helping children become critics of what they see on the small screen is a goal of the Maryland Campaign for Kids' TV, which released its first "report card" on local TV. "Report Card '93" is the work of community teams, each of which adopted a station in order to monitor the quality, quantity, timing and variety of its programming for children. The D+ grade reflects the teams' conclusion that, overall, the stations are "seriously deficient" in their attention to good programming for children and adolescents. Some stations have little decent programming; others air quality shows at times like 5:30 a.m. when few youngsters are likely to watch.

The group plans to improve its "report card" technique. At the press conference announcing the results, campaign director Charlene Hughins Uhl promised to fix one glaring omission in the teams -- a lack of children. But this first effort serves its main purpose: to bring public attention to the requirements of the Children's Television Act of 1990 and to urge the FCC to enforce its provisions.

The federal law requires commercial stations to air educational and informational programs for children and limits the time that can be devoted to commercials during children's programs. To give the law teeth, Congress linked the renewal of a station's broadcast license to compliance.

Maryland Campaign for Kids' TV is the first group to undertake a comprehensive effort to monitor compliance with the act. No doubt its evaluation teams and the report card they will produce will be copied elsewhere. So will another valuable tool produced by the campaign, a booklet entitled "When Pulling the Plug Isn't Enough." Available from the campaign's offices (547-9200), it is filled with information about the effects -- good and bad -- television can have on children's lives. It also contains suggestions for helping parents turn their children into TV critics rather than passive viewers.

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