Six years ago, Congress passed the Children's Television Act to encourage the broadcast industry to develop alternatives to the usual fare of violent cartoons and toy-related shows. It said TV stations, in exchange for free use of the public airwaves, should serve "the educational and informational needs of children," through, among other things, "programming designed to serve such needs."
But the law's intentionally vague wording left broadcasters free to label shows such as "The Flintstones," "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," and many others as educational - thereby making the statute less than effective.
Some in Congress are trying to change that. Last week 220 members of the House sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission, urging it to adopt a proposal by FCC chairman Reed Hundt. Mr. Hundt wants to tie stations' license renewals to a requirement that they air at least three hours a week of informational children's shows. The agency's four commissioners are evenly split on the issue.
Broadcasters, of course, remain adamantly opposed. They say any effort to dictate what they air abridges their First Amendment rights. Yet the Supreme Court, in past decisions, has disagreed. In three separate cases it ruled that the broadcast spectrum is a limited commodity to which only certain people have access. Broadcasters, therefore, are subject to a wider range of regulations than are other media.
Broadcasters' fight against the proposal appears to be more about money than about editorial integrity. As supporters point out, nothing in the proposal would censor speech. It wouldn't require broadcasters to educate children about a particular subject. It simply would require them to educate children about something. The fact remains, however, that toy-based shows bring in scads of money, while educational ones, typically, do not.
To ask for three hours of such programming a week isn't asking much. At least it would give families a few program choices. Equally important, under the proposal, the definition of "educational" would be tightened and broadcasters would be required to label their shows. A private group may be appointed to comment on shows' quality. If so, broadcasters might not be so quick to call a program educational when it clearly isn't.