CHILDREN and parents were the winners when President Bush reluctantly decided last week to let a bill regulating advertising on children's television become law without his signature. The measure brings a needed element of public oversight back to an area of broadcasting damaged by the deregulation of the early '80s. The amount of advertising during shows aimed at children has ballooned to 12 minutes per hour on weekends and up to 14 minutes on weekdays - versus an average of less than eight minutes per hour for regular prime-time programming. The new law will cut that back to 10.5 minutes on weekends and 12 on weekdays.
No big deal? In terms of number of minutes involved, perhaps not. But minute-trimming isn't really the heart of this new law. More important, it requires local stations to inform the Federal Communications Commission, at license renewal, how they're serving the needs of children.
This is not censorship with grave constitutional implications, as Mr. Bush and other critics tried to argue. It's merely compliance with longstanding federal communications law that treats broadcasters as public trustees and demands they be responsive to the public's interest.
The FCC isn't likely to grant or deny many licenses on the basis of what local stations say in their reports on children's programming. But local viewers will have access to those statements, and motivated parents will thus have a means of holding broadcasters to their promises or asking for better. Letter writing campaigns could help generate changes. Broadcasters may get the message that children, like adults, deserve variety. Why not news and public affairs shows geared to children, for instance?
Local stations want to be popular in their communities. They have reason to be responsive to parents who want better viewing options for their children.