Children's TV has often seemed a particularly arid part of television's "vast wasteland."
Washington has occasionally tried to correct that. Almost two years have passed since the Federal Communications Commission enacted the "three-hour rule," which made commercial broadcasters responsible for airing at least three hours of educational programming for children a week. While the rule can't be called an unqualified success, children's TV is better off with it than without it.
The actual number of kids' shows has not increased under the rule. But the FCC quota has prompted networks to pay added attention to their overall programming mix. And broadcasters seem to have gotten the message that parents are monitoring what their kids watch. TV executives are more sensitive to complaints about violent content.
Aside from Washington's prodding, market forces are increasing the focus on children's programming. Kids influence family spending more than ever before. Advertisers have taken note, making cable's Nickelodeon one of the three most-profitable networks (along with NBC and ESPN).
Of course, parents care most about the quality of children's TV. Network and cable programmers still have leagues to go to comply with the spirit of the FCC rule. They're playing catch-up to PBS, which has a long track record of admirable children's programming. The goal is to get more educational programs of that caliber on the air.
It should come as no surprise that "educational" means one thing to children's advocates, and often another to TV executives. The FCC rule gives networks some wiggle room - allowing shows to be labeled "educational" that emphasize either "social-emotional" or "cognitive-intellectual" development.
Social-emotional programs often deal with topics such as peer pressure, dating, and gambling in a sit-com setting. Cognitive-intellectual programs offer a more rigorous curriculum-based approach, often introducing math or science concepts. In the fall 1998 season, of 28 programs touted by the commercial networks as educational, only three were designed to enhance kids' cognitive-intellectual development.
Clearly, the networks need to find a better balance. And parents and lawmakers need to pay close attention. While programs that send useful social messages are more valuable than shoot-'em-up cartoons, children should have a variety of options - which, of course, should also include non-TV activities such as reading.