PASADENA, Calif. -- After some intense last-minute deal-making, President Clinton is expected to tell panelists at his White House summit on children's television today that an on-again, off-again plan to provide more and better educational programming for kids is back on track.
The plan, which would require all television stations to carry three hours of educational programming a week as a condition of license renewal, was thought to be dead Friday by many children's advocates, broadcasters and even some at the Federal Communications Commission.
But discussions were jump-started by the White House with a compromise proposal when it realized that today's conference was in danger of being perceived as a failure without some positive news on the three-hour rule, for which Clinton and his FCC chairman, Reed Hundt, had been campaigning since May.
Unlike the White House summit in February -- attended by all the moguls of the industry from Michael Eisner of Disney/Capitol Cities/ABC to Rupert Murdoch of Fox/News Corp. -- Hollywood had pointedly snubbed Clinton on this one.
Each of the networks will be represented at today's conference in the East Room, but not by the top tier of executives. The highest-ranking participants will be Geraldine Laybourne, president of the ABC/Disney Cable Networks, and Margaret Loesch, president of Fox Children's Network -- well down the food chain from Eisner and Murdoch. NBC, which sent network president Robert Wright in February, is sending Peter Engel, who runs a production company that makes Saturday morning teen shows like "Saved By The Bell" for NBC. CBS was treating the summit as such a low priority that, as of Friday, it had not even decided who would attend.
The White House was hoping for some star power with Fred Rogers of "Mr. Rogers" fame and Bill Nye of "Bill Nye The Science Guy" scheduled to attend. Late last week, though, as stories started appearing in the trade papers about the hardball from Hollywood, the White House extended an invitation to Bill Cosby, who is currently promoting his new fall series, "Cosby" on CBS. Cosby's agent, Norman Brokaw, said his client would attend, but preparations were in such a scramble mode at the White House that Cosby's name was not on the list of participants released to the press.
Thirty to 50 people will attend today's summit, including Vice President Al Gore, Tipper Gore and Hillary Rodham Clinton. The group will include children's television advocates, academics and producers.
"This is about [using] the presidency as a 'bully pulpit,' bringing the players in the entertainment industry who are involved in children's programming together to talk about what works and how we can get more of it," said John Emerson, a deputy assistant to Clinton.
After introductory remarks from the president, Hillary Clinton will lead a discussion on the "importance of television as a positive force in child development." The Gores will moderate sessions on "models of success in children's programming" and "overcoming barriers to producing better children's television," according to Emerson.
"I think it is going to be more a dialogue or discussion than formal presentations -- more like the 'Family Reunion' kind of thing last year in Nashville," said Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Center for Media Education, an advocacy group based in Washington. "But overcoming barriers to better kids' TV is key."
Administration officials and advocates like Montgomery say the biggest barriers to more and better kids' television are the National Association of Broadcasters, the trade group that represents virtually every network and television station in the country, and FCC commissioner James Quello, whom the television industry considers its best friend on the four-member commission.
But, not surprisingly, it is not nearly as simple as that partisan explanation suggests. Chairman Hundt, a prep-school classmate of Gore and law-school classmate of Clinton, has been just as big a barrier -- due to his inexperience or arrogance, depending on which analysis you buy.
In June, after almost a year of debate and all kinds of political pressure, Quello agreed to change his position on the three-hour plan, which would break a deadlock on the FCC and give it the power to revoke broadcasters' licenses if they did not provide such educational programming for children. With Quello's shift, a tentative deal was in place that could be signed, sealed and delivered with cameras rolling and industry leaders present at today's summit.
But, two weeks ago when Quello saw the 200-page plan Hundt had come up with on the three-hour rule, he angrily denounced it and the deal unraveled.
"This is the most regulatory micro-management of a news and information service that I have seen in my 22 years at the FCC," Quello said, stressing that the plan created more "big government" while giving broadcasters "no flexibility" in meeting children's needs.