Broadcasters yield on children's programs TV networks to air educational shows 3 hours each week

July 30, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Reversing a historic trend, the nation's broadcasters consented yesterday to provide at least three hours of children's educational programming a week -- or risk losing their licenses.

The agreement, brokered by the White House over the weekend, was announced by President Clinton as he kicked off a three-hour conference on children's television in the East Room.

Noting that a typical American pre-schooler watches 28 hours of TV a week, Clinton said:

"I cannot imagine anything that serves the public interest more than seeing to it that we give our children at least three hours of educational television a week.

"This proposal," he added, "says to parents: 'You are not alone. We are all committed to working with you to see that educational programming for your children makes the grade.' "

As late as Friday, the administration had been unable to muster a majority of FCC commissioners to adopt the three-hour rule, largely because it was vigorously opposed by the National Association of Broadcasters.

Earlier, the NAB, which represents the four major broadcasting networks and their affiliates, had agreed in principle, but they rebelled when they saw the 200-page plan formulated by Reed Hundt, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and the staff of Vice President Al Gore.

The White House capitulated to NAB demands that they have some flexibility in complying with the three-hour rule.

The administration was desperate for the conference to proceed smoothly -- and for the president to add the three-hour rule to his list of family-friendly achievements in the middle of an election year.

Accordingly, broadcasters can satisfy the educational provision by supplementing regularly scheduled educational programs with specials or even public service announcements -- or by contributing to educational efforts in other ways, such as donating computers to schools, sponsoring educational events or underwriting educational programming that is aired on other stations.

Formal approval by the FCC could come as soon as Thursday, but several thorny issues remain. One is whether advertisers will support educational shows -- even if they result in lower ratings. Another is whether parents will just allow their kids to switch to less intellectually stimulating shows on cable.

Perhaps the biggest is how to define "educational" television.

Provisions requiring educational children's programming were included in the Children's Television Act of 1989.

But without a working definition or any oversight panel to come up with one, some TV stations have cited such shows as "The Jetsons" and "Leave It to Beaver" reruns as examples that they are complying.

Yesterday, however, the spirit at the White House was one of harmony and good will all around.

"The industry is now on board," said Gore, who moderated one of three panels.

NAB President Edward Fritts concurred.

"Mr. President, let me assure you we as broadcasters consider ourselves Americans first and broadcasters second," he said. "We believe we will be successful and the children of the United States will be the beneficiaries."

In eliciting such comments, Clinton demonstrated a deftness with the so-called presidential "bully pulpit" that had Republicans gnashing their teeth.

Both Clinton and GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole have criticized Hollywood for the raw and violent content of its programming, but Dole claims he's been unfairly cast as the bad cop.

When Dole took on Time-Warner last year, he was excoriated by the town's liberal establishment as a pandering politician bashing Hollywood for votes.

When Clinton embraced the v-chip as a way of blocking out violent programming seen by kids -- an idea so conservative neither Dole nor House Speaker Newt Gingrich could swallow it -- Hollywood barely registered a peep of protest.

Campaign contributions have continued to flow from Hollywood to Clinton/Gore '96, and the president was even nominated for an Emmy for an anti-smoking announcement he did with Linda Ellerbee.

The irritation of the Dole camp with this apparent double standard was evident in a statement issued by the campaign.

"Like most TV spinoffs, Bill Clinton's imitation of Bob Dole's real leadership in confronting the excesses of the entertainment industry is contrived and weak," said the statement.

"Bill Clinton, after all, has pocketed over $454,000 in campaign contributions from the entertainment industry. And it's doubtful he'd do anything to risk losing his commercial sponsors."

Privately, however, some conservatives pointed to yesterday's announcement as an example of why Clinton is proving so tough to run against.

His stances on the v-chip and children's programming mirror other examples in which he has embraced trusted conservative cultural issues.

These range from school uniforms to relaxing rules against school prayer.

Pub Date: 7/30/96

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