Carrots, Sticks and Children’s TV

As Kermit the Frog often says, “It’s not easy being green.” It’s also not easy for producers of quality children’s programming to get their shows on cable and satellite television today.

The problem isn’t a lack of good programming — rather, independent producers of quality children’s TV shows aren’t able to get their product delivered to a large enough audience to make the effort economically viable. The growing problem of access to the nation’s pay TV systems is serious, and the new Congress and FCC should push an agenda that gets quality children’s programming on television.

Ion Media Networks would like to add its perspective to this debate as an emerging player in this arena. Ion operates 60 stations across the country and is broadcasting three digital channels from them, including our children’s network, Qubo. We are utilizing our licenses for the public good and want to make our mark with quality programming. As we are more successful, we are committed to increasing our investment in quality programming — including original fare for children.

Our digital channel, Qubo, is intended to be a safe, high-quality educational viewing destination for kids and their parents. It is the nation’s only free, over-the-air, 24/7, nationally distributed children’s programming service. One of our partners in Qubo is Scholastic Media, a division of Scholastic and a leading producer of high quality, family-oriented media.

And we’re not just stepping up with programming: We’ve also led the way in public service, with our commitment to national anti-obesity efforts, adopting nutritional guidelines for Qubo advertisers last year.

So what happens when a broadcaster makes a commitment to quality programming — especially educational programming for children — but tries to increase its audience to get a return on its investment? In the case of Ion, after two years of quiet negotiation, Qubo and its companion digital channel, Ion Life, which focuses on active lifestyles, are carried on AT&T’s U-verse TV, Verizon’s FiOS TV, Mediacom Communications and several smaller cable systems. We have not been able to secure widespread digital distribution on larger cable systems.

So, we find ourselves pleading with the Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to help us secure carriage. After all, many in Congress and at the FCC have long exhorted broadcasters to utilize their digital spectrum in the public interest. Now we, in turn, are asking policymakers to help us persuade our pay TV partners to actually carry it.

In short, Ion needs a federal policy truly committed to children’s programming. We are telling anyone who will listen that at their minimal distribution levels and slow adoption rates, Qubo and Ion Life are not sustainable. At some point, we must reevaluate our continued investment in them.

If policymakers want to see more public-interest programming, they need to help independent media companies like Ion secure the distribution to make such programming economically viable.

Ion is one media company that envisions great things that can be done with spectrum. But the idea of tying digital must-carry to public-interest obligations has been around for years and has gotten nowhere. Cable has resisted a mandate to carry new digital programming from broadcasters, believing it alone should determine which programming serves their customers’ interests.

The result has been a policy stalemate with harmful ramifications for the public. It means that a broadcaster like Ion, which is committed to using its multiple digital channels to serve the public interest, is left without the distribution and economic base to justify continued investment in those channels.

We hope that the new administration and Congress will agree that making quality children’s programming available to every American family is a priority. America’s children have a right to watch and enjoy programming that is both educational and entertaining. But unless cable operators allow more outside programming on their systems, or Congress and the FCC step in to require it, most of America’s children will be denied the opportunity to watch and enjoy programs offered by Qubo and others.