Which kids shows make the grade?

Network executives and child advocates weigh in on children'sprogramming

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It's midterm exam time for schoolkids around the country, and if there's any place many of those students would rather be, it's in front of the television.

On behalf of the sorely tested children who might try to make the argument that TV is a teaching tool too, the Monitor rounded up a group of industry observers - children's advocates, network executives, and parents - to provide its own midterm report card on how well broadcasters are actually doing to make that time spent in front of the TV educational and informational.

This evaluation focuses on what's been dubbed "FCC-friendly" programming - shows that ostensibly fulfill the congressionally mandated requirement that all stations air a three-hour minimum weekly dose of educational or informational (E/I) programming. Stations must file quarterly reports to show how well they're providing this service - or risk losing their license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) at annual renewal time.

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First, some background. When the Children's Television Act first passed in 1990, the law simply required that stations fulfill the educational and informational needs of children ages 2 to 16. When stations submitted the animated shows "The Jetsons" and "The Flintstones," claiming they were aids in understanding other time periods, supporters realized there was more work to do.

Refinements to the rules, passed in 1996, created a category of core educational programming that must have the significant purpose of educating children, a clearly stated educational objective, and a target age. It must also be at least 30 minutes long, have a regular time slot, and air between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.

So, without any further digression, the envelope please ...

"As a former professor, I would give the networks as a whole around a B-minus," says Kathryn Montgomery, president of New York's Center for Media Education (CME), an advocacy group that spearheaded the 1996 refinements to the rules.

Ms. Montgomery says that the networks' overall performance is adequate at best. Montgomery acknowledges a few bright spots, such as "Squigglevision," part of ABC's Saturday morning lineup, but maintains that, overall, networks "are grudgingly going along with this requirement."

The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia published a review of roughly 1,000 programs in June, grading them from best to worst (see story, above right). Senior research investigator Amy Jordan agrees with the overall CME grade of B-minus and explains her most serious concerns.

"We're most disappointed in the lack of diversity in the programs," she says, noting that the vast majority of programs are geared toward the social and emotional needs of children as opposed to their cognitive and intellectual counterparts. Indeed, a recent CME study showed 25 of the top 29 programs submitted for consideration are socially, not intellectually, oriented.

"The spirit of the rules was to get more substantive shows," the researcher reflects, "with more science and history." Instead, Ms. Jordan observes, the networks are taking what she calls the cheapest, easiest path. "These [socially oriented] shows appeal to the widest demographic."

The networks themselves are unusually clear-sighted in their own evaluations. CBS Television president Leslie Moonves, in an uncharacteristically modest moment, gives the oldest network "a solid B" for its performance. "I'm proud of what we do," he says, adding "but I'm not saying there isn't more we could do."

NBC, on the other hand, gives its young-teen-oriented TNBC top marks. "Our programs deal with the social and emotional issues teens are most concerned with," says Robin Schwartz, vice president of Saturday morning programs and prime-time series on TNBC.

According to researchers Jordan and Montgomery, however, TNBC's schedule is filled with shows such as "One World" and "Hang Time" that are heavy on the social and emotional issues while offering virtually nothing on the cognitive side.

Fox Kids, with its emphasis on action and attitude, the teen-oriented WB, and eclectic UPN have all carved out their various niches with mixed reviews.

It should be noted that while the stations, not the networks, are accountable, the notion of locally produced programming by the stations is "increasingly becoming a thing of the past," notes Annenberg's Jordan.

"Network-provided programs are cheaper and more polished," she says, "and more attractive to a wider audience who are used to the slicker production standards." Therefore, she says, it is appropriate to hold the networks accountable for the programming they provide.

Founder of the defunct Action for Children's Television, Peggy Charren, now a visiting scholar at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., gives the networks a passing grade at best.

"Most of the stuff that's listed for kids won't make their hair fall out," she says, but "very little is extraordinary." The longtime children's advocate maintains that broadcasters are doing as little as possible in the three areas of most importance: programming content, preemptions, and commercial interruption.

Ms. Charren suggests that while content is rightfully a top priority, if the shows can't be found because of constant preemptions or are overwhelmed with commercials, the content won't matter.

Stations that exceed the mandated 10-1/2 minutes of commercial time for the weekends and 12 minutes for weekdays have little incentive from the FCC to comply, Charren says. "They're fined a token amount, which is cheap compared to the sale of the ad time."

Given the proliferation of cable options, which are exempt from all but the commercial-time requirements, some observers suggest that government regulation of only the broadcast portion of the market is unfair, and ultimately, irrelevant.

Jim Kearney, a member of the communication-arts faculty at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, maintains that market forces have already taken over the FCC's job.

"Most of the major media companies already have a cable outlet for children," Mr. Kearney observes, pointing to Viacom's Nickelodeon, Fox's Family Channel, and Disney's (ABC's corporate parent) Disney Channel.

The future may render that judgment correct, says an FCC source, but FCC regulations are still a powerful and important tool.

While acknowledging that the predominance of quality children's television tends to be on cable, Jordan points out that "fully a third of this country's children don't have access to cable." Also a mother of three preteens, Jordan says that without the FCC requirements in place, many of the brightest spots in today's programming wouldn't exist.

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