TELEVISION activists are making a big deal about a law Congress passed last month to improve children's fare on commercial stations, and understandably - it was a long struggle. All the measure does is put a modest limit on how many ads can be carried during children's viewing time - especially Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons. It also expects a modicum of accountability from broadcasters for the kind of programs they offer kids. Yet in a country that historically has asked precious little of commercial stations in the service of children, the new law looms large. Even in today's new video world, broadcast channels are still a limited - and highly profitable - resource. The public has a right to set standards for their commercial use, especially as it affects the young. Many Western nations treat that segment of the population with special care and wouldn't dream of subjecting them to the kind of advertising assault youngsters in the United States grow up with. These nations limit or ban commercials and make stations carry programs aimed at specific age groups.
In the United States, TV - a medium that offers so much to so many people - has tended to treat kids as a rich market to be put at the disposal of advertisers and manufacturers. Over the years, some stations have tapped this market opportunistically by piling on the ads and airing ``program-length commercials'' - shows based on characters that can be bought in the form of toys. Some hosts whom kids had come to love and trust would act as pitchmen during commercials. The most benign of father figures used to slip seamlessly from children's friend to salesman and back. Whether he was telling stories or plugging a product, it was all the same to kiddie viewers: They followed their hero's lead.
That particular abuse finally stopped when reforms began to be made during the '70s. As far back as 1960, even the notoriously lenient Federal Communications Commission (FCC) acknowledged that broadcasters weren't living up to their duty to kids - a euphemism if there ever was one - and told them so. It took a watershed event, the 1967 Carnegie Commission on Educational Television (and the subsequent Public Broadcasting Act of 1967), before nonprofit TV stations popped up and offered programs like ``Sesame Street.'' Such shows were expensive, but public TV proved it could be done.
But most of the reforms in commercial TV were wiped out during the deregulation-minded Reagan administration. Even the liberal limits that had been placed on ad frequency were lifted. So the applause greeting this new law is understandable - especially when it comes from Action for Children's Television (ACT), a leading combatant on the ideological battleground of kids' TV. This group has been fighting for such changes for some 20 years, beginning with a petition to the FCC in 1970. In the early days it was a quixotic struggle. ACT's membership of parents and others was viewed as a group of meddling kooks by federal bureaucrats.
end CHO Now the politicians appear to have gotten the message about the need to keep an eye on kids' TV. Even though the law passed without President Bush's signature, it carried easily in both houses. It even received the lukewarm endorsement of the National Association of Broadcasters, an advocacy group that usually prefers ``industry self-regulation'' - in other words, a free hand.
But what, exactly, is the cheering all about?
A bill that says you can't have more than 10 1/2 minutes of commercials an hour on kids' shows or 12 per hour on weekends. That's an improvement, of course, over the present. Some stations now carry 12 minutes an hour on kids' shows during weekends and as much as 14(!) an hour during the week.
Yet one fact remains unchanged under the new law: Far more commercials will be allowed on kids' TV than most adults are exposed to: Ads during prime time - roughly 7-11 p.m. - average something less than eight minutes per hour. Until something is done about this ratio, it will be very hard for anyone to say that TV is taking its responsibility to children seriously.
But at least the FCC is once more being asked to consider the quality of children's programming when deciding whether to renew a station's license. The FCC will also have to take a hard look at those ``program-length'' commercials in making its judgment. I guess it's a start.