FCC Releases 'Modest' Kids TV Reforms Item

The FCC has released its proposed Children's Television Report and Order (R&O) and Notice of Further Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM), which is essentially final rules changes accompanied by a proposal to make another, potentially big, change.

FCC chair Ajit Pai had signaled a vote was coming on the item July 10.

The R&O essentially retains the basic requirements with a bit more flexibility in terms of the when, where and how long of educational and informational (E/I) children's programming they must air under the Children's Television Act.

The R&O, among other things, gives broadcasters an extra hour (from 7 a.m.-10 p.m. to 6 a.m.-10 p.m.) in which E/I programming satisfies the three-hours-per-week requirement and gives broadcasters the ability to count a "limited" amount of non-regularly scheduled programming toward the requirement, though still requiring the "majority" of that programming to be regularly scheduled weekly, and allow a "limited" amount of short-form programming--PSAs, interstitials--but most still required to be at least a half hour.

Broadcasters would have preferred more flexibility on both fronts, but FCC commissioner Michael O'Rielly had signaled that the changes would be "modest reforms." One change they pushed for and will be happy with is that the FCC will now allow a regularly scheduled E/I program to be preempted by a non-regularly scheduled locally produced news program without requiring it to reschedule the episode.

The order says the changes will provide "additional scheduling flexibility, allow broadcasters to offer more diverse and innovative educational programming, and relieve unnecessary burdens on broadcasters, while also ensuring that high quality educational programming remains available to all children."

The "among other things" the R&O will do include:

  • "Require broadcast stations that multicast to air the substantial majority of their Core Programming on their primary program streams but permit such stations to air up to 13 hours per quarter of regularly scheduled weekly programming on a multicast stream.
  • "Modify the safe harbor processing guidelines for determining compliance with the children’s programming rules, while retaining the obligation to air 156 hours of Core Programming per year.
  • "Eliminate the requirement that noncommercial broadcast stations identify their Core Programming by displaying the “E/I” symbol throughout the program.
  • "Streamline reporting and record keeping requirements."

The FNPRM seeks comment on a regime that would allow broadcasters to satisfy their kids programming obligations by, in part, producing or funding programs that aired on another station in their markets, kind of like the regulatory equivalent of the Civil War option of paying someone else to fight.

Sen Ed Markey (D-Mass.), author of the Children's Television Act, certainly was please that the changes were not greater, but still had some issues.

“I am pleased that the FCC is not moving forward with its initial proposal to dismantle the children’s television rules that keep enriching television on the air for kids,” he said. “But I am concerned that the Commission appears poised to decrease the amount of regularly scheduled, quality programming on primary broadcast stations. Allowing one out of the three hours of kids programming to be moved to sparsely viewed multicast streams is a mistake and is undoubtedly bad for children, particularly those in low-income and minority communities who cannot afford expensive pay-TV options including cable or over-the-top offerings. We need to ensure that all children have access to the educational programming that will help them thrive and grow, and I am committed to working with my colleagues to see all children have robust access to an important resource.”

The National Association of Broadcasters characterized it as a "measure of sanity," but signaled the FCC could have used a larger measuring cup.

“Instead of enhancing the rules to create more educational programs for the kids and families that rely on television content, the FCC’s rules will result in less programing for kids and will disproportionately impact low-income families," said Common Sense CEO Jim Steyer. "Instead of a giveaway to broadcasters, we urge the FCC not to waste this opportunity to strengthen the rules to support educational kids content for both traditional broadcast and cable.”

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.