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Unintended Consequences.

If you asked Peggy Charren, the Ralph Nader of children's television, why in 1992 she decided to disband Action for Children's Television (ACT), the influential advocacy group she founded some twenty-three years earlier, she would probably sum it up in four words: the Children's Television Act.

Perhaps never before in the history of the medium had a law held more potential for positive change. Sure, the limits it set on advertising (twelve minutes an hour weekdays, ten and a half minutes on weekends) often exceeded what the networks had been running, but at least they established boundaries. And while the Children's Television Act was largely toothless from its passage in 1990 until quantitative rules were established six years later, the general principle of making service to children a requirement for license renewal set a precedent that broadcasters could hardly ignore. After all, the bill's sponsor, Republican Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts, built in the ultimate incentive: a mechanism to challenge the license of broadcasters who were not complying.

With an infrastructure to hold broadcasters accountable finally in place, it's easy to see why children's advocates finally felt comfortable enough to declare victory. This law "has more power behind it than the noise of Peggy Charren and ACT," Charren told Time magazine confidently upon closing up shop in 1992. "For more than 20 years, ACT has tried to get the public-interest laws that govern broadcasting to apply to children. With the passage of the 1990 Children's Television Act, this goal has been achieved."

Well, yes, but not without some pretty surprising side effects. A June 1997 report by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which conducts continuing research on children's television, outlines a number of "unintended consequences" of the act, including a decline in locally produced children's programming and network shows that were "educationally weaker" than many of the syndicated and local shows they were replacing. A 1998 Annenberg report suggests that, in some cases, program quality had actually declined since the new rules. For example, the number of network shows labeled "highly educational" dropped from 43 percent to 29 percent, while teen programs designated "high quality" fell from 80.6 percent to just 28.3 percent. According to Annenberg's 1999 report, 21.2 percent of the programs broadcasters were counting as educational were judged to have little or no educational value.

The bottom line according to Annenberg? "Clearly they could do better." The Children's Television Act and the quantitative rules established in response to it have inadvertently led to a lack of diversity in programming and a surprising number of "educational shows" that aren't really all that educational. "On the balance, I know the Children's Television Act is a much better deal than the situation we had before," Markey responds. No question. But in order for the new laws to achieve their potential, we need to take a critical look at how they have played out so far.

Before 1990, the quantity and quality of programs for young people were subject to the political climate and the whims of broadcasters. In the 1970s, public pressure prodded the networks to introduce drama (ABC's Afterschool Specials), news (CBS' Thirty Minutes), even academic skills (Schoolhouse Rock) to schedules which had been dominated by look-alike cartoons. In the 1980s, Reagan-era deregulation empowered broadcasters to give up all pretense of serving the public interest and focus exclusively on the bottom line. The most extreme example was a new breed of cartoons derived from toys and other products. Licensing merchandise was hardly a new practice, but basing a toy on a kid's show was a far cry from basing a kid's show on a toy. The programs lost favor with viewers. The lesson for children's advocates was lasting: any strategy for long-term change that wouldn't be subject to political whims would have to be written into law.

The Children's Television Act required broadcasters to serve children, but only in the most general terms was service to children defined, and Republicans made it clear that implementation would be left up to broadcasters. When some stations tried skirting the law, children's television advocates pressed to mandate an hour a day for educational programming. The industry complained that, since no quantitative rules were part of the new law, the proposal was unreasonable. Markey countered that Congress had intended some kind of specific requirements when it passed the law and asked then Federal Communications Commission Chair Reed Hundt, a Clinton appointee, to come up with a proposal for an hourly minimum.

The compromise that finally passed--the so-called three-hour rule--made local stations responsible for airing three hours of educational programming a week but left it up to each broadcaster where to find programs. Most independent stations bought shows from syndicators. Affiliated stations generally turned to their network. The networks developed new entertainment series with educational content and added instructional or pro-social messages to existing shows so that their entire Saturday morning children's schedules would be "FCC friendly."

Ironically, one of the first casualties of these new network shows was programming produced by the local stations: teen talk and news programs, academic quiz shows, storytelling and adventure-oriented magazines for younger children, and other community-oriented series. Before the three-hour rule, a fair number of stations produced shows like these as part of their public service campaigns to help at license-renewal time. Once broadcasters were assured of meeting the requirements simply by running three hours of educational programs from any source, station managers realized they could safely dump their own shows and stick with the more profitable block of network shows. As the 1997 Annenberg report explains, "Because there were no benefits associated with exceeding the minimum three hours, there was no incentive for them to provide more."

Markey believes the incentive remains, as always, community service. "I know this sounds like a heretical concept," he says, "but the reason [stations] would do [more] is that it's good for children in the viewing area of their broadcast signal and that they feel a social responsibility to those families to provide high-quality local children's programming." However, a study championed by Markey's office and conducted by Dale Kunkel, a communications professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, found that "only 9 of 48 stations examined presented any locally produced children's programming, and those that did provided relatively little of it."

Within months of the three-hour rule's enactment, the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia dumped its long-running, locally produced teen talk show. A station spokesperson explained it to the Annenberg researchers this way: "Unfortunately, we were not able to keep up [the show] because of the time frame.... We had to drop production on the program ... and pick up all children's programming from the network." Translation: we aren't about to run three and a half hours or preempt one of the more profitable network kid's shows now that we know we don't have to.

As producer of a teen show at WBZ-TV, the local CBS affiliate in Boston, I assumed our station's history of more than twenty years in local children's programming would continue. It did--for one more season. Our final show aired on the first anniversary of the three-hour rule. Amy B. Jordan, who directs Annenberg's research, said the loss of local programs has "become more and more endemic to children's programming since the three-hour rule, and I think it's a shame." Local programs are valuable in helping stations "stay in touch with the needs and interests of the children and parents in the community."

There are still exceptions. KRON-TV in San Francisco preempts all but an hour of the NBC Saturday morning block in favor of three of its own children's series and three syndicated educational shows. Spokesperson Jim Esser says his station invests in its own children's programming out of "the belief that we have to throw something back into the community." In most cases, however, according to Annenberg, "Local broadcasters believe that their communities do not care about their children's educational programming efforts." WBZ-TV News Director Peter Brown maintains, "When our signal goes out at eleven o'clock on Saturday morning [with CBS programs], WBZ is doing children's programming.... The reality of it is, I don't think it matters at this point whether or not it's local or national."

The loss of syndicated and local shows is especially significant because most of the networks' educational offerings are only "minimally" or "moderately" educational, while the syndicated shows they replaced were far more often rated "highly educational." Among network shows, Jordan notes a trend toward "less creativity in children's programming than there has been in the years past [so that] Hang Time looks like Saved by the Bell which looks like City Guys, while Pepper Ann looks like Recess." That's no coincidence. These days, the networks tend to draw from just one or two production companies for their entire lineup. For the second year, CBS has acquired all of its programs from a single animator. The result, according to Jordan, is that "the independent producer--the producer that's out there with one great idea--isn't really going to be able to get his foot in the door, and I think it's a shame."

Broadcasters are right to maintain that programs can only educate if children choose to watch them. Balancing entertainment and information in a single show is not easy, but it is now the networks' job, and some do it better than others. ABC's Squigglevision (formerly Science Court) is an example of an animated series that kids (and parents) watch because it's funny. The academic content is up front but never forced. NBC's teen sitcom Saved by the Bell was developed long before the new law and the "pro-social" message tacked on makes it more preachy but hardly more educational. Even the show's most devoted fans will tell you that the only thing they learn from watching each week is that it's time for Screech to make his next career move.

Another concern is the effect the three-hour rule has had on programming that is sporadically scheduled or less than a full half-hour. Consider the ABC Afterschool Specials. Launched in 1972, these hour-long stories followed young people facing everything from braces and first bras to racism and AIDS. Despite erratic scheduling, they were seen as prestige projects, attracting big names in front of the camera and behind the scenes, and winning scores of major awards. It may seem like odd timing, but just as the new rule took effect, the network canceled the only drama series for young people on television. The network argued the cancellation had nothing to do with the new rules, but affiliates would have received no credit for running the show. To be included as part of a station's three hours, shows must air weekly and be at least thirty minutes long. That leaves out the Afterschool Specials, as well as CBS' interstitial In the News segments, a 1970s staple which reappeared and then quickly disappeared again.

Equally troubling, those shows that do make it onto the schedules are often selected as much for their "marquee value" as their educational value. This is the so-called creative community's way of saying that a new series is only as good as the hit movie it was based on or the plush toy line it will inspire. It's hard to imagine that 101 spinoffs of 101 Dalmatians is what Edward Markey and Peggy Charren had in mind when they worked so tirelessly for passage of the Children's Television Act. None of these concerns outweigh the good this legislation has already done, but to bring the new law to the next phase, children's advocates will need to be ready to address these problems and be open to change.

The real question is: will parents and teachers get involved enough to guarantee that next season there's going to be more good stuff and more of the stuff that is still missing: news shows and local programming for kids." That's what Charren asks in the industry trade magazine Broadcasting and Cable regarding the first television season after implementation of the three-hour rule. It remains an open question. Jordan believes we would do well to consider "offering carrots instead of sticks" to broadcasters. Now that stations have been told, in essence, that all they have to do to get their license renewed is to air their network's Saturday morning block, this might be the only option.

To encourage local programming, Jordan suggests that advocacy groups consider awards for outstanding local children's shows. They'd better hurry. Last year, the National Association of Broadcasters saw a 29.2 percent decrease in applications for its annual Service to Children Awards. This year, it replaced the children's awards with one for all types of local programming--no doubt a reflection of the dwindling number of local shows in existence.

Getting every station to produce its own show isn't likely, but making sure every market has at least one quality community show for children is a worthwhile goal. One possible answer would be to pool the resources of all the commercial stations within a market to produce a show that would air on the public television channel. Representatives of all the stations involved would meet with community leaders to assess needs. The affiliate stations would then contribute the resources--studio space, field crews, equipment, editing time, and station talent--and the public television station would provide the air time. For stations that might not be inclined to produce their own show, the idea of contributing to a show might not seem so daunting.

Ensuring variety in the network schedules may be a more difficult proposition. Markey said, "The quality of the programming is ultimately something that is a marketplace issue that we don't have a lot of control over." While he and Charren have always been rightfully skittish about content regulation, it's odd to hear the champion of such a monumental piece of legislation sound so willing to cede influence to an industry he's always confronted head on. Even Markey's own aide acknowledged, "The marketplace, generally speaking, does not reward putting on an educational program that emphasizes educational values over entertainment values."

So what gives? Why are proponents seemingly so willing to take their three hours and go home? When Markey routinely refers to "my Children's Television Act of 1988" and "the time I passed the Children's Television Act in 1990," he may be providing a clue. Having struggled earnestly for years to pass meaningful legislation, he may now be feeling such a strong proprietary sense about the law that it's difficult to contemplate changes. But we've now had several years to see how the rules have played out, and if we want these vital laws to achieve their full potential, we must not be afraid to tinker.

Quality is an issue that will have to be addressed head on. If not, one day we may be looking at a three-hour block of Saved by the Bell, Hang Time, and NBA Inside Stuff and wondering what the whole fight was for.

Andy Levinsky has an M.E. in English/language arts and a B.S. in communications/advertising from Boston University. He is a television and radio producer who now writes articles on communications and education for a number of publications.
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Title Annotation:Children's Television Act has unintended side effects
Author:Levinsky, Andy
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 1999
Previous Article:Rewards Not Bombs: The Answer to Ethnic and Religious Conflict.

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