It took years of tireless activism to pass the Children's Television Act of 1990 into law. Getting the broadcasting industry to take it seriously could take even longer. Old habits die hard, and some critics charge that the law's provisions are excessively vague. But no one doubts that television has become a pervasive influence in the lives of American children, an influence that ought to get more scrutiny.
Maryland is paving the way for better scrutiny of children's TV -- and doing so in a way that ought to please all sides of the ideological spectrum, from critics of heavier federal regulation to those who want the government to be even more aggressive in setting standards for children's programming. The Maryland Campaign for Kids' TV is a grass roots effort, dependent on the private sector for organizational funding but even more dependent on a growing corps of enthusiastic volunteers. These volunteers are organized into 13 teams around the state, one for each of the commercial television stations broadcasting in Maryland.
This summer, the teams produced their second annual report card, showing a little bit of improvement and a lot more interest in the issue on the part of station management. Overall, the grade improved from a D+ for 1993 to a C- this year. That's not stellar, but it's movement in the right direction.
The teams judged stations in six categories: the number of hours devoted to children's programs, whether they are shown at appropriate times, whether there are programs for various ages of children, the quality of those programs, whether any are produced locally, and the interest and commitment to improvement exhibited by station management. Measured against the campaign's goals, Maryland's stations have a long way to go. Even so, in the past year there has been an overall increase in the average number of hours broadcast for children from 1 1/2 hours per week last year to 2 1/2 this year. One of the campaign's goals is to see that increased to seven hours a week.
The teams also noticed an overall increase in the quality of programs for children. But perhaps the most welcome change was the open attitude volunteers found at almost every station, replacing the initial defensiveness many stations felt about the requirements of the new law. When the Federal Communications Commission held hearings earlier this summer, most station managers paid little attention. They are much more alert when the message is coming from concerned consumers who are actually watching their stations.
Maryland's Campaign for Kids TV is onto something -- and the improved grade for Maryland's stations this year provides the evidence.