BY the time they reach college age, most young Americans have watched a staggering 200,000 commercials on television. They will have spent more time in front of a TV than in a classroom. The issue here is not simply the time spent before the screen; it is also the content of what kids watch that should concern us.
Those that bemoan the lack of US student ability in math and science - disciplines requiring active thinking skills and sustained concentration - might consider the simple fact of what engages young people's attention. Those worried about a lack of probing interest in intellectual, moral, and spiritual issues might regard the messages youths receive during their most preoccupying activity.
Last week Congress looked at children's television. And it didn't like what it saw. Both the House and Senate passed similar bills (the Children's Television Act) that attempt to bring guidelines to the TV industry's approach to children's programming.
The bill requires TV stations to provide some educational programming as a condition for license renewal. It also sets a cap of 10.5 minutes per hour of advertising on the weekends, and 12 minutes on weekdays. The current weekend average is 11 minutes, up from 9.5 minutes per hour before the deregulation of the Reagan years.
Will a half-minute less advertising on weekend TV improve American youth's thought and behavior? Don't be silly. Children's programming is now largely a wasteland of cartoon violence, meaningless stories, and product promotion. Congress's measures aren't even a stopgap against what author Neil Postman calls the diseducational effect of most children's TV.
Still, the bill points in the right direction. Even the TV industry, in official statements, agrees that deregulation hasn't helped kids. One doesn't have to be old fashioned to realize young minds need some protection. And better some than none.
Moreover, one hopes the impetus for improving TV continues. An FCC investigation into the insidious relations between toy manufacturers and program-theme developers is welcome. It's doubtful that TV stations would be refused licenses for inadequate children's programming alone. But stations having to think about improving their fare may improve kids' TV at the margins.
Government action on the issue is fine, as far as it goes. Better quality TV, reading, and family talks on the values contained in today's media are what's needed.
Mr. Bush should sign the bill.