FCC Head Fights for Quality TV
Reed Hundt is jousting with broadcasters over how they define 'educational' in shows meant for children
NEW YORK — FOR many broadcasters, there's no greater villain than the bookish, courteous chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Reed Hundt. His dastardly deed? Trying to require three hours a week of educational TV programs for children.
It's Big Bird versus the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and the commercial kick-boxing experts appear to have the upper hand.
Broadcasters say any effort to dictate what they air abridges their First Amendment rights. Three of the five FCC commissioners and powerful House telecommunications subcommittee chairman Jack Fields (R) of Texas concur. Mr. Fields threatens "to go to war" over the issue.
That, in turn, has Mr. Hundt's supporters up in arms.
"This is the first FCC chairman in decades who's trying to represent the public's interest, and they're trying to crucify him," says Jeffrey Chester, director of the Center for Media Education, an advocacy-oriented Washington-based think tank.
Not so, broadcasters contend. They say the tall, politically connected Hundt is abusing his FCC "bully pulpit" to push an unconstitutional issue, besmirch their quality children's programming, and delay a vote he knows he can't win.
"It's obvious that he's driven by a great passion to impose 1960s-style regulation on broadcasters," says Jeff Baumann, executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB).
Hundt finds all the brouhaha a bit incredible. He says he's simply trying to enforce the law and help broadcasters protect their own long-term interests.
"Eighty percent of Americans think there's not enough educational children's programming on television," Hundt says. "I think the broadcasters are in denial."
In 1990, after a contentious, five-year battle, Congress unanimously passed the Children's Television Act (CTA). It requires broadcasters to air educational children's shows, but left the details to the FCC. In 1991, the FCC set a definition for such programming that is "nothing but loopholes," Hundt says.
Broadcasters now routinely claim that such shows as "The Flintstones," "America's Funniest Home Videos," and "The Jetsons" fulfill the educational requirement. That, for many parents, educators, and activists like Peggy Charron, inspires indignation.
"They're still trying to do nothing for children," says Ms. Charron, the founder of the now-defunct Action for Children's Television, which is credited with getting the CTA passed. Charron says Saturday-morning TV is still designed to sell more toys, not inspire kids' minds.
More than a dozen educational, child-advocate, medical, and psychological groups representing 59 million Americans agree with Charron and have filed comments with the FCC.
"Children's television today is no different than it was five years ago before the act was implemented," says Dale Kunkel, professor of communications at the University of California in Santa Barbara.
Professor Kunkel co-authored a recent study that found much of the programming claimed as educational does not represent "good-faith efforts" to meet the CTA standard. Kunkel says some shows are so frivolous they are comical.
For instance, WGCB in Pennsylvania says Yogi Bear fits the bill because it teaches "ethical and moral values such as not to do stupid things or you'll have trouble, and don't take what doesn't belong to you or be prepared to face the music."
"Do you think that the person who wrote that really believes this is what Congress intended when they passed the act?" Kunkel asks. "Do you think people at the FCC ought to accept that as a legitimate educational claim?"
The broadcasters admit some stations are generous in their definitions of "educational," but they insist it's perfectly legitimate.
"Congress itself pointed to programs like 'The Smurfs,' " when it debated the CTA, Mr. Baumann says. The NAB also defends its members, insisting they have met and even surpassed the requirements of the CTA. They have limited the number of commercials in children's shows and increased their number. In 1990, the average station aired only two hours of children's programming a week that they considered educational, says the NAB. Today, the NAB says they air an average of four hours. (Independent studies put the average closer to 3-1/2 hours a week.)
NAB President Edward Fritts takes pride in that programming and charges that Hundt and the advocacy groups have failed to recognize the strides the industry has made. For every Yogi Bear claim, he can point to a "CBS After-School Special."
In a speech before Connecticut broadcasters Oct. 26, Mr. Fritts also suggested Hundt was "obsessed with the issue" and charged he was delaying a vote to intensify his public-relations campaign. (Fritts admits the NAB requested a two-month delay.)
The broadcasters also have a powerful ally on their side in Commissioner James Quello, a conservative Democrat. Mr. Quello says political appointees like Hundt have no right to tell broadcasters what or how much programming to air. For support, he points to the United States Supreme Court ruling on the 1992 Cable Act. It states that the FCC's oversight responsibilities "do not give it the power to ordain any particular type of programming that must be offered by broadcasters." Quello wants to know: Why all the shooting when the war's already over?
"The activist, ignoring the surveyed facts of a substantial increase in children's programming, lacking congressional approval or court precedent," Quello says, "are playing the emotional 'C' - the children's card - for all it's worth. From a First Amendment perspective, they're dealing from the bottom of the deck."
The advocates for children's programming say Quello is quoting the decision out of context and point to Supreme Court rulings of their own. In noting that the broadcast spectrum is a limited commodity to which only certain people have access, the high court found in 1943 (and again in 1969) that "it is idle to posit an unabridgeable First Amendment right to broadcast comparable to the right of every individual to speak, write, or publish."
Since the 1934 Communications Act, the government has given broadcasters the right to use the spectrum in exchange for a vaguely defined commitment to serve the "public interest."
Now that digital technology and competition from cable and phone companies have increased the value of that spectrum, Hundt argues that it's in the broadcasters' best interests to clearly define that "public interest" by providing more top-rate children's shows.
FCC Commissioner Rochelle Chong is the swing vote. In a recent speech she indicated opposition to the three-hour requirement. But she also spoke favorably of two other less-controversial aspects of Hundt's proposal: tightening the definition of educational programming and requiring broadcasters to label it.
Ms. Chong says the current definition is so broad "you could drive a truck through it" and argues that if broadcasters were required to post educational shows, it would "discourage them from trying to claim shows as educational" that really aren't.
Those less-controversial proposals may prevail. And that, ultimately, may have more impact. Broadcasters will have a harder time justifying Yogi Bear's educational merits, though he may be "smarter than the average bear."