Advocates for "good" kidvid name the factors that make programs "educational"

Originally published in Current, July 8, 1996

By Karen Everhart Bedford

The never-ending debate over children's TV programming is shifting from how much broadcasters offer to the quality of what they air.

The change comes after almost two years of deadlock at the Federal Communications Commission, which is putting the final touches on a long-awaited agreement that will set three hours as the weekly minimum of children's programming for broadcasters.

With this breakthrough, the focus is now on quality--a subjective issue that doesn't lend itself to federal rulemaking, but is at the heart of advocates' objectives.

At a June 17 press conference hailing the FCC's pending agreement, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) predicted the new kidvid rules would help usher in a "golden age of children's television." This spring, Markey built political momentum for the three-hour standard by collecting signatures of 220 House members who endorsed the proposal.

"This will not be a happy ending," Markey predicted. "It will be the happy beginning of a good policy."

In an election year in which the networks acceded to demands for a voluntary violence-and-sex ratings system, the White House is building political momentum for the push to improve the content of children's television.

President Clinton has called for an as-yet unscheduled White House summit on children's educational TV. "If we can control, by ratings, [and] give parents the power to deal with what their children are watching on television, surely, surely, we can agree to increase the content of children's television that goes to education," the President said in an early June speech.

More recently, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton on June 22 criticized Mighty Morphin Power Rangers as a show that has "no place in any lineup described as children's programming," according to Broadcasting & Cable magazine. "We simply must demand more of the people who are producing--and profiting from--the shows that young people watch," the First Lady said in rermarks to the National PTA convention.

If broadcasters start airing a better grade of kidvid, some highly placed advocates want to begin labelling it on-air. Vice President Al Gore recently endorsed a proposal advanced by PBS President Ervin Duggan to establish a special icon for children's programs that qualify as educational. "As with food labels, parents will know whether they're choosing a healthy televised meal or simply another helping of a high-fat video junk food," Gore said at the June 17 press conference. "It's a great idea."

Duggan advanced the proposal for an educational icon on qualifying children's TV shows in a May 30 speech to the UCLA Center for Communications Policy, describing it as a way to "create 'welcome mats' for programs worth watching" in the television ratings system.

"Eat-your-spinach" TV

Like Vice President Gore, opponents of kidvid labelling, make an analogy between good programming and good nutrition. Children's Television Workshop warned in comments to the FCC last fall that quality labels "may suggest 'eat-your-spinach' television to a child, and may 'turn him off' before he has given a program an opportunity to engage his attention."

CTW supports labelling shows off-air, such as in special television guide listings, to help adults guide children's viewing choices. This approach appears to have broader support than an on-air icon, judging by comments at a recent Washington conference on children's TV. Several panelists at the day-long session, which the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania sponsored with help from CTW, worried that educational tags would have the unintended effect of stigmatizing quality programs for kids.

Researchers at the June 17 conference cautioned that promotion for any labelling effort be considered very carefully. Donald Roberts of Stanford University, cited a recent study that showed that boys aged 10-12 are attracted to television shows, movies and video games that carry warnings for parental discretion. He called for research on how to convey messages that encourage children to make better viewing choices.

But from a broadcaster's perspective, the label would be a useful tool, according to James Steinbach, programming and production director for Wisconsin PTV. "There's an enormous amount of kids' stuff coming across my desk, and most of it isn't very good," he said at the conference. Programmers could use "some mark of distinction" to help sift through them.

Whether children's programs are labeled or not, reform regulations will require that somebody set criteria for quality. Existing rules require broadcasters to serve the "educational and informational needs of children" with content that fosters the "positive development of the child in any respect, including the child's cognitive/intellectual or emotional/social needs."

FCC commissioners have made clear that they do not intend to involve themselves in this touchy issue, but the commission's lengthy deliberations have prompted several children's television advocates to suggest criteria for "core programming" that would fulfills the mandate of the Children's Television Act.

CTW has recommended that shows counting toward the three-hour quota of core programming have specific, written educational goals for a targeted age group; be developed with input from educational advisers; and be tested for their effectiveness at achieving its goals.

Duggan endorsed CTW's definitions, and in his speech at UCLA suggested two additional criteria for programs bearing the educational icon. Qualifying programs should address at least one subject "considered essential for school readiness," and those that target preschool children should air without commercial interruptions.

Quality pluses and minuses

A recent analysis by Annenberg broke ground in developing a method of actually measuring quality in children's programming, although it did not deal with specific educational objectives. "The State of Children's Television: An Examination of Quantity, Quality and Industry Beliefs," drew praise from Vice President Gore and children's television researchers when it was released at the children's TV conference.

Amy Jordan, a senior research fellow for Annenberg, led its analysis of all children's programs that aired over three days in Philadelphia. Researchers looked for 10 "quality contributors"--such as appropriateness for target age and "enriching or pro-social lesson or theme"--and five "quality detractors"--verbal or physical violence, and gender, ethnic, or racial stereotyping, among others. Subjective ratings for the programs also were factored into the quality rating for each program.

Overall, the study found 38.5 percent of children's programming to be of high quality, 24.9 percent moderate, and 36.6 percent low quality. However, much of the best fare aired on basic cable or premium channels, or at crack-of-dawn airtimes.

The vast majority of PBS's children's schedule--97 percent--were rated as high quality. The remaining 3 percent were designated moderate quality. The study did not publish ratings for individual programs.

Across all channels, preschoolers and adolescents were well served with high- to moderate-quality offerings, but 48 percent of the programs for school-age children were low-quality. Ironically, this age group has more programs to choose from, but "they have little educational value" and are "violent, stereotypical, and lacking in diversity and production value," the study said.

Annenberg intends to repeat its evaluation of children's programming on an annual basis, although next year it will analyze kidvid airing over an entire week, instead of three days, according to Jordan. The Center also will survey parents and kids to get sense of their attitudes about television, and begin looking at what stations designate as educational children's programs in FCC license renewals. "We want to know whether the Children's Television Act or its modifications make any difference," she said.

"A lot these shows get buried--you can't find them," said Jordan. "Maybe if we can find programs that are worth the attention of parents and kids, we can find a way to help call attention to them."

"It's a very valuable effort that Annenberg has undertaken," said Victoria Rideout, director of the Children and Media program for Children Now, a nonpartisan advocacy group. She distinguishes between the quality ratings that the Annenberg study established--"it encompasses stuff that is just plain fun for kids"--and the criteria for core programming mandated by the FCC. "Core programming needs to meet higher standards," of quality and educational value, she said.

Commercial broadcasters appear reluctant to begin a discussion of quality in children's programs. Executives at Fox and CBS did not respond to Current's request for interviews. However, in recent articles covering the FCC's new standards, producers and network executives have asserted the widely-held conventional wisdom that educational programming doesn't attract audiences.

"I do not believe that, in a home setting, children turn on the TV to learn a curriculum," said Margaret Loesch, president of the Fox Children's Network in the Los Angeles Times. She said that programming that imparts values and motivates children is most effective, but many shows those things aren't considered educational.

Peggy Charren, the longtime activist who calls herself the "grandmother of the Children's Television Act," espouses a more subjective approach to evaluating the quality of kid's TV. She quotes E.B. White, who said: "You can't write down to children. You have to write up."

Charren hopes the FCC's new rules will require stations to air core programming no later than 7 a.m., and to maintain public files that specify the educational goals and target audience for each program.

From there, she would leave it up to communities to monitor how well stations are fulfilling their public service obligations to children. "It certainly can't be up to the FCC to say 'yes' and 'no' to quality."

"I am more willing to depend on the democratic process" to assure compliance with the Act.



Duggan proposes positive ratings for educational programs

Originally published in Current, June 17, 1996

Calling for a television ratings system that offers "welcome mats" for children's programming, PBS President Ervin Duggan on May 30 proposed that the industry create a special icon to identify shows that meet agreed-upon educational standards.

"The current approach to ratings, in my judgment, doesn't go far enough. It provides signs of danger, but no identifying marks of distinction--no signposts to programming of special educational merit," said Duggan in a speech at the UCLA Center for Communications Policy. "I believe that we in the television industry have an obligation to do more than simply say our programs will do no harm."

Creating the positive signal would serve two purposes, Duggan said. It would help parents distinguish between generally harmless programming and that which has educational value. And it would create incentives for programs that meet agreed-upon industry standards.



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Earlier news: In a 1993 report for CPB, child development specialists list important ready-to-learn skills.


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