Better TV for Children

The Children's Television Act, passed in 1990, required TV broadcasters to increase educational programming for children. The law was intentionally vague, however, and notoriously easy to get around.

That now could change. Under an agreement reached last weekend, broadcasters would produce or air three hours of regularly scheduled, half-hour educational programs each week between 7 in the morning and 10 at night. The programming would fulfill the requirements of the Children's Television Act.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Reed Hundt has been pushing for such a rule for two years. He's had the support of many in Congress and much of the public, but not the approval of all the FCC commissioners. One in particular, James Quello, has been an outspoken critic.

The new proposal will likely be more palatable to Mr. Quello. It gives some flexibility to broadcasters that air "somewhat less" than the regularly scheduled 30-minute shows a week. To renew their licenses, they would have to demonstrate to the FCC that they had shown enough specials, public-service announcements, or short (15 minute) programs to meet the requirement.

That such a compromise had to be made is disappointing, but it's better than another stalemate. Some broadcasters attending last weekend's meeting said it would keep them from suing to block the regulation as a First Amendment infringement.

The proposal, however, lacks a real definition of what constitutes "educational" programming. It's up to the FCC to resolve that. If it doesn't, history could repeat itself, with broadcasters arguing that programs such as "The Flintstones" are educational.

Still, the fact that the issue of quality programming for children has gotten the attention it has is encouraging. If the FCC gives its approval, as seems likely, and enforces the regulation, everyone will win, including broadcasters. As Herb Scannell, president of the Nickelodeon cable channel said, "When we make a good show, we actually get good business out of it."

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