Guidelines for children's programs unlikely to change what kids see Television: The push for more and better shows for the young is no cause for optimism, if the past is any guide.

June 26, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The drumbeat of debate on children's television has been steadily rising along the Potomac this summer, but the question is whether it's a genuine call for much-needed reform or merely election-year politics.

A major announcement is expected -- perhaps, as soon as tomorrow when the Federal Communications Commission meets -- saying that the panel has set guidelines aimed at making every television station carry at least three hours of educational programming for children a week.

The guidelines appear to be a done deal. The only major uncertainty is whether they will be announced this week or next month when President Clinton tries to bring broadcasters back to Washington for yet another television summit. In January, Clinton met with network executives on the V-chip and a ratings system. Last August, first lady Hillary Clinton convened a highly publicized "White House Panel on Children's Public Television."

The three-hour mandate from the FCC is important in terms of understanding the relationship between politics, broadcasting and children these days. But, ultimately, it will make little or no difference in what kinds of programs children and parents see on television, experts say.

"I would dare say that parents will see very little change in programming content," said Dr. Sheri Parks, who teaches a course in "Television and Children" at the University of Maryland in College Park.

"The industry has shown itself to be very ingenious at defining what makes educational television. So, if parents are expecting their local television stations to suddenly do clones of "Sesame Street," they are not going to see it," Parks added.

"I think it might make some difference with some independent stations and some really greedy network affiliates in small markets where the profit margin isn't as large," said Dr. Douglas Gomery, a University of Maryland media economist who writes a column on "Economics and Television" for the American Journalism Review. "But in the 50 largest markets -- in places like Baltimore -- it is not going to make a difference."

Parks and Gomery say their assessments are based on historical analyses of the issue, particularly the problem of determining what makes for "educational" kids' television.

Broadcasters have been required since 1990 to provide "educational and informational" programming for children under the Children's Television Act.

But, since the law left the matter of defining those terms and determining how much programming should be aired to the FCC, which grants and renews all broadcast licenses, many stations easily dodged its intent.

The most egregious examples were published in 1992 when researchers from an advocacy group went through letters various stations had filed with the FCC attesting to compliance with the act. In the letters, stations had listed such programs as reruns of "The Jetsons" and "The Flintstones" as educational, saying they taught science and history, respectively.

The first batch of stations bidding to have their licenses renewed since abuses of the act were documented have filed their statements of compliance this month. They include stations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., and they show that there has been some improvement, in that there is nothing as obvious as calling "The Jetsons" educational.

But they also show that considerable latitude with the term is still being taken by many stations, such as the network affiliates in Baltimore.

For example, WBAL (Channel 11) listed "NBA Inside Stuff," a Saturday-afternoon show featuring news and features about the National Basketball Association, as educational. It also offered such empty-headed Saturday-morning teen sitcoms as "Hang Time" and "Saved By The Bell" in that category.

Educational sitcoms

WMAR (Channel 2), meanwhile, listed such empty-headed Friday-night sitcoms as "Boy Meets World" and "Step By Step" as educational. WJZ (Channel 13) counts "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," a prime-time adult drama, as educational.

By their standards, all Baltimore stations except WBAL are already carrying more than three hours of educational children's programming a week. And WBAL's case is complicated by its claim that in carrying more local news than any other station in Baltimore on weekend mornings -- the prime time of kids' television -- it is doing a better job of serving area viewers.

"What is sometimes absurd and what worries me is what the stations and networks consider educational," said Dr. Michael Brody, a Silver Spring psychiatrist who writes about television for the Journal of Popular Culture and who testified last month before the FCC on the issue. "You're dealing with some very slippery people. So, unless you tighten the definition of educational, what difference would a three-hour rule make?"

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