CONGRESS might have supposed it was doing something meaningful on behalf of America's youngsters when it passed the Children's Television Act in 1990.
The act required TV broadcasters, who must periodically renew their license to operate with the Federal Communications Commission, to increase educational programming for the young. But it said almost nothing about how this would be done.
So individual broadcasters responded with moves such as listing ``Super Mario Brothers,'' a cartoon show based on a popular video game, as teaching ``self-confidence.'' Or saying that reruns of the 1950s sit-com ``Leave It to Beaver'' provided a lesson in ``communication and trust.''
Last year, under the new Clinton administration, the FCC told broadcasters to end that nonsense. It said such programming no longer would qualify as ``educational'' and held up the renewal applications of seven stations, demanding that they show better evidence that they were meeting their educational responsibilities.
The 1990 act empowered the FCC to set more-specific guidelines; this week it held hearings to do just that, promising to announce any changes by the end of the year.
A coalition of children's advocacy groups has put forth several specific proposals to improve educational TV. They include requiring a minimum of one hour of children's programming per day and sharpening the definition of what constitutes educational content: It should be developed with the help of independent educational advisers; crafted to fulfill explicit, written educational goals; and be evaluated for its effectiveness.
These steps would be reasonable and useful. So would another suggestion - that the programs be aired after 7 a.m. and before 10 p.m. A new study by the Center for Media Education showed that broadcasters in the 20 largest US markets still run almost half of their educational programming between midnight and 6:30 a.m.
Broadcasters argue that since 1990 they have developed a number of new educational programs. That's true, although these shows often hide a smidgen of educational nutrition inside a candy bar of frenetic entertainment.
Broadcasters also reminded the FCC that regulation of programming raises ``sensitive'' First Amendment free-speech concerns. Courts may yet have to sort between the two ``goods'' of free speech and responsible citizenship. But that shouldn't stop the FCC from moving now to improve a deplorable situation.
As long as broadcasters make profits from the public's airwaves, the government has a right and an obligation to see that the privilege is used with some attention to the public good.