Conservative Groups Push for Loosening Kids TV Mandates

Limited-government groups want the FCC to limit the mandates in its enforcement of children's programming legislation dating from the early 1990s, while a prominent kids TV group sees it slightly differently, while agreeing changes are needed.

The FCC is tentatively proposing to eliminate a number of children's TV rules, and is seeking comment on changing others, tentatively concluding that educational and informational programming does not have to be at least a half-hour in length and regularly scheduled. 

Related: Democratic Senators Say Kids TV Mandates Must Stay

The agency also proposes cutting the frequency of kids TV reports to the FCC from quarterly to annually. That is according to a draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) released by the FCC Thursday (June 21) for a July 12 vote.The NPRM seeks comment on whether there still needs to be a three-hour-per-week mandate and whether the hours in the day when programming qualifies as filling the requirement should be expanded. 

In comments this week on the FCC's Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, over two dozen groups including Americans for Tax Reform, Citizens Against Government Waste, and the American Conservative Union, said that was the right way to go.

Aligning themselves with the thinking of Commissioner Michael O'Rielly and likely the two other Republicans on the commission, the groups point out that the 1990 Children's Television Act simply required broadcasters to include educational and informational children's programming in their weekly lineups without mention of quotas or restrictions.

It was the FCC, they argued, that chose to interpret that mandate broadly and "micromanage" content--the FCC requires at least three hours per week of such E/I programming in increments of at least a half hour.

The groups say broadcasters should have more flexibility to program in smaller or larger blocks--the FCC has no trouble with larger. 

They point out, as have others, that under the FCC rules the iconic Schoolhouse Rock! "I'm Just a Bill lesson in parliamentary procedures would not pass muster. 

They also argue the FCC requires a "mountain" of paperwork--broadcasters are required to file quarterly reports on their children's programming.

Their other arguments for "modernizing" the rules as the FCC item is billed, include the "vast" amount of kids programming on alternative platforms in the 97.5% of the country that have "Access" (an important term) to cable or online programming. Critics of that argument say access does not translate to affordability, so saying that programming is available for pay does not relieve broadcasters of the public interest obligation to provide it for free.

In its comments on the proposal, the Parents Television Council said that while it agrees the rules need to be modernized, the proposal reads like a broadcaster wish list. instead, it suggested, the FCC should employ some of the data-driven processes the new chairman has espoused to identify and define what the programming needs of children and families are, then seek input from parents, and get testimony from the scientific and education communities.

"[I]f the broadcast industry actually intends to replace KidVid programming with increased local news and community programming instead of infomercials or other paid programming, then add that as a condition to any rule change," said PTC president Tim Winter.

"We are truly grateful to FCC Commissioner O’Rielly for his leadership on this potentially thorny issue," said Winter. "He is right that we need to revisit successful programming like ‘In the News’ and ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ which helped to inform and educate generations of children. It’s high time for modernizing and improving the rules, and we look forward to working with him and with his colleagues during this review process.”

PTC also signed on to a letter to the FCC from various children's advocacy groups, including the Center for Digital Democracy, Common Sense and Color of Change, saying the FCC's NPRM makes a "vast" number of unsupported claims and leaves many questions unanswered. They "strongly" urged the commission not to adopt the NPRM as it stands now, and instead issue a notice of inquiry, which would allow for all that fact collecting and digesting PTC was promoting.

In a speech this week, O'Rielly said he recognized that not everyone can avail themselves of the proliferation of kids TV alternatives that is one of his reasons for proposing loosening regs on broadcasters. " I understand that while the market has significantly changed and children like mine are fortunate enought to have a host of programming otions at their fingertips, not all children are so lucky. While figures vary, according to recent data from Nielsen, .5% of American households with children are over-the-air-only families. These children's access to informational and educational programming is solely through their local broadcaster."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.