January 27, 2010

The Children's Television Act: An Update

By Vandana Y. Bhide, MD, FAAP, FACP
The Children's Television Act (CTA) was passed by Congress in 1990 with the goal of providing educational programming to children that "furthers the positive development of the child in any respect, including the child's cognitive/intellectual or emotional/social needs1."
Subsequent modifications of the Children’s Television Act required that:
1. Television stations provide a minimum of three hours per week of educational and informational shows targeted to children under the age of 16 during their prime viewing hours of 7 AM to 10 PM. Commercials were limited to 10 minutes an hour on weekends and 12.5 minutes an hour on weekdays.
2. Educational/informational children's shows had to show the "E/I" label on the television screen the entire length of the show.
3. As television transitioned from analog to digital, broadcasters, who can have up to six channels of programming in digital instead of one channel in analog, were required to provide the commensurate amount of children's educational/informational programming.
The FCC is also required to consider whether a television station has served children’s educational needs during the station’s license renewal process. In return for providing such educational programming, broadcast stations were given free access to public airwaves.
So twenty years after the Children’s Television Act was first passed, has it achieved its mission of promoting educational programming for children? Unfortunately, the answer is no.
For example, broadcasters once labeled the The Jetsons educational because it dealt with the futue and The Flintstones informational because it dealt with history. Although the show GI Joe had violent content, it was described by television stations as educational due to its pro-social themes. Networks also labeled Leave it to Beaver as educational because it had pro-social messages.
Children Now, a nonpartisan children’s research and advocacy organization, evaluated educational shows broadcast by the four major networks from 1997-2008. Children’s Now determined that in 2007-2008, only 13 % of programming described by networks as educational and informational was determined to be of high educational quality. 63 % of shows were found to have moderate quality and 23 % minimal quality.
Health and nutrition messages, especially those that addressed childhood obesity prevention, were "extremely rare." 2 The report concluded that current television programming does not meet the original intentions of the Children's Television Act.
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee concurs. On July 22, 2009, Senator Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., Chairman of the committee, convened a hearing called "Rethinking the Children's Television Act for a Digital Media Age." The Senator said he planned to introduce legislation to regulate children's media content, citing his "grave concerns about violence and indecency in the media."
Clearly the Children’s Television Act has failed to increase educational children’s programming in a meaningful way. Even more discouraging is the fact that there have been a number of lawsuits filed by broadcasters in federal courts as well as before the FCC in an attempt to avoid their obligations to provide educational programming as stations convert from analog to digital.
What can pediatricians do to help parents when typically only three hours per week of television programming on a particular station is educational?
First, we can talk to our patients and parents about the educational programming requirements of the act, and what the “E/I” symbol means. Encourage parents to watch programs with their children to evaluate the educational value. Parents and pediatricians can notify the FCC about programming that lacks educational quality.
The FCC is generally responsive to parents who object to programming. For example, in 2007, the FCC entered into a consent decree with Univision to resolve petitions by children's and media organizations to deny the broadcaster's license renewal applications. It was alleged that Univision's children's programming did not comply with the educational requirements of the CTA. Univision voluntarily paid $24 million and developed a plan to comply with the rules of the Children's Television Act.
It is clear that most broadcasters adhere only to the minimum educational programming requirements of the Children’s Television Act. Therefore, the only way to encourage more educational television programming is to encourage the FCC and Senator Rockefeller’s committee to increase E/I programming requirements that stations must provide in order to continue to access the public airwaves for free.
1. "Policies and Rules Concerning Children's Television Programming Memorandum Opinion and Order," Federal Communications Commission Record 6,(1991): p.2114.
2. Executive Summary: Educationally/Insufficient? An Analysis of the Availability & Educational Quality of Children's E/I Programming. Children Now. Htttp://www.childrennow.org/eireport.