A New Day Coming For Kids' TV - Maybe

DOES the Federal Communications Commission really mean business this time?

Earlier in the month, it delayed the license renewal of some stations in Michigan and Ohio. Renewal is typically a routine procedure, but in this case the FCC told owners: First, prove you're doing the right thing by kids in the way of educational programs.

That certainly sounds as if the commission is getting tough. Yet it's hard not to believe we're witnessing an old routine, one that historically goes something like this: The commission tells broadcasters they simply must take the welfare of young viewers more seriously. Sometimes they say this because Congress is turning up the heat - perhaps holding public hearings like the ones that took place in Washington earlier this month. At such forums, groups like the now-defunct Action for Children's Televisio n (ACT) usually point to an obvious dearth of decent shows for kids on commercial stations. They cite the license-owners' obligation under the Communications Act of 1934 to broadcast "in the public interest." Under questioning, broadcasters squirm, defend their records, and pledge to do better.

But then the media spotlight shifts to other issues and the pressure lessens. Returning to their stations unscathed, the owners add few constructive shows for kids. Even if reforms do occur, they have been known to disappear as quick as a wink from an antiregulatory administration.

You could see this pattern as far back as the 1960s, when ACT and other groups started agitating for better kids' shows. By the 1970s true gains were made, but in 1981, the antiregulatory Reagan administration began wiping out many of them. It took another long crusade by activist groups and congressional supporters before the Children's Television Act of 1990 was passed (without President Bush's signature).

Many in the pro-kids' TV camp cheered wildly. Here, finally, was the watershed event, they said. I wondered what the exulting and self-congratulations were about. Hadn't they seen it all before? But some activists countered that stations would now become accountable - the law says right here that broadcasters must offer "educational" kids' shows, doesn't it?

Sure, but what's "educational"? According to some stations today, "The Jetsons" and "GI Joe" qualify. After all, a program like "The Jetsons" teaches kids about the 21st century, doesn't it? Admittedly, cartoons like that are better in many ways than the kids' TV fare of a couple of decades ago - less violent and virtually stuffed with social consciousness. But educational? Have you watched the material some stations are trying to foist off as being in compliance with a law designed to help kids learn ma th and reading, and understand public affairs?

The more militant reformers were afraid this would happen: that the law's vagueness would be exploited. And sure enough, there's been little improvement in educational content on most stations since 1990, according to the FCC. It is still another example of history repeating itself, of promised "reforms" once again failing to materialize.

But at the time of the law's passing, no one could have confidently predicted President Clinton's election and what appears to be a sea change in regulatory commitment. A key provision of the law - left largely unenforced by the Bush administration - may now offer hope. It lets the FCC impose new rules of its own, and that's exactly what the commission says it intends to do. But first the FCC must receive the legally required public comment. Licensees, in the commission's unctuous language, "may remain u ncertain as to the scope of their obligations," so the FCC is seeking "how we might better guide broadcasters."

Come on! Advocates have known for decades how to "better guide" them. Require a daily schedule of age-specific shows designed to inform and educate young viewers. There are creative people out there eager to fill this void, as testimony during last week's congressional hearings confirmed.

Some broadcasters may be guilty of dereliction of duty to kids, but the Clinton administration seems intent on letting the FCC make a case against them.

Let's hope it sticks.

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