The enduring battle for more "Big Bird" and fewer "Biker Mice From Mars" on network television may soon be over. It looks as if "Big Bird" is going to win, and America's children will have more quality educational programs to watch on network television.
For the first time in history, the Federal Communication Commission is poised to require that broadcasters provide a minimum of three hours of more informative, thought-provoking television for children.
The move comes on the heels of a study to be released today that found that while there is a lot of high-quality programming for children on public television and premium cable channels, the networks get a failing grade by comparison. More than half of their shows for children were rated "low quality."
The decision to require a three-hour minimum has been adamantly opposed by many broadcasters as an intrusion on their first amendment rights. Just a few months ago, they were predicting victory, in large part because FCC Commissioner James Quello was on their side. A conservative Democrat, he believes any quantitative requirement would raise constitutional questions.
But over the last two weeks, Commissioner Quello, a swing vote on the commission, appeared to waver.
Last Friday, in an interview, Quello said he would vote for a three-hour minimum requirement in the form of a "processing guideline" in order "to move this time-consuming and controversial item forward." In FCC terms, a processing guideline is halfway between a hard-and- fast rule and a simple recommendation.
The FCC could vote on the three-hour minimum requirement for educational children's programming for broadcast television within the next two weeks.
For advocates of children's television who have fought to improve the quality of the network's programming for more than 20 years, Quello's decision marks a major victory.
"This is a big story," says Peggy Charren, a leading advocate for children and founder of Action for Children's Television. "What the networks are providing now is mostly junk food for the eyes. This will move the whole process forward."
The three major networks declined comment on Quello's decision. Even CBS had no comment, although it has already agreed to provide three hours of educational television as part of the FCC approval for its acquisition by Westinghouse last fall. The network is already touting its high-quality lineup for the coming season.
Officials from the "big three" networks also had nothing to say about the failing grade assigned to them by a new Annenberg Public Policy Center study. That study is part of an overall strategy to assess and improve the quality of television for children by analyzing the current state of affairs and recommending the best methods to address them.
The study polled more than 1,000 parents and children, ages 10 through 17, on the quality of children's programming. The conclusion: There's plenty available, if you're willing to set your alarm for 6:30 a.m. on Saturdays when the networks run most of their educational shows, or pay the price for premium cable channels.
"The dilemma is the one-third of the households in the country that don't have cable," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Children in those households, many of which are low-income or in rural areas, have to rely on what's available from the networks and public broadcasting.
"This means it is imperative that we continue to ensure that public broadcasting exists and is able to produce high-quality programming," says Ms. Jamieson. "It also means we should be raising the question: Can the networks do more, and can they do it in a way that gains sufficiently large audiences to be viable economically?"
A full-day conference is under way in Washington today to address those questions.
Quello says he still believes a three-hour processing guideline is just a "more subtle form of government intrusion" than a hard and fast three-hour rule. He also says the "social benefits" that will come from three hours of children's educational television on the networks are "way overblown."
"I was really set against anything that had either a processing guideline or a specific number in it," says Quello. "But everyone wants to say, 'Let's get on with it,' so I'll concur with a three-hour processing guideline and in a separate opinion list my constitutional concerns."
Over the past few months, 220 congressmen, 32 Senators, as well as President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore Jr., have either written to the FCC or voiced their support for the measure.
Advocates of quality children's programming are confident that the minimum requirement will, in the long run, have a very positive effect on the country as a whole. And people like Mrs. Charren think the networks should make the most of it.
"Now that they're being dragged kicking and screaming to serve children, you'd think they have the brains to make it look like they think it's a terrific idea and something they want to do," Charren says. "They're not going to really benefit ... if it looks like they had to be held against the wall to make them perform. It would have been better if they looked more interested in serving kids right from the start."