Usual kidvid reform allies are split about "sponsoring" shows on public TV
Originally published in Current, July 8, 1996
By Karen Everhart Bedford
The long battle to put some teeth into the Children's Television Act is about to culminate in new FCC rules that require broadcasters to air three hours per week of educational children's programming.
FCC commissioners last month announced that they had broken an extended deadlock over the proposed three-hour standard, which will be established as a "processing guideline" rather than a strict rule. Stations that air less than the three hours of qualifying programming would have to demonstrate a similar commitment to serving children with a "basket" of other program activities, including underwriting programs on other channels, according to Commissioner Susan Ness.
Kidvid crusader Peggy Charren said PBS's sponsorship proposal undercuts the objective of improving programs on all channels.
This latter provision not only gives commercial stations flexibility but also prompted some last-minute positioning by PBS, which has urged the FCC to allow commercial broadcasters to fulfill their kidvid obligations by sponsoring shows on public TV. But some children's TV advocates adamantly oppose this plan.
In a New York Times op-ed last month, PBS President Ervin Duggan called attention to a "little-noticed" provision of the Children's Television Act that suggests program sponsorship as a means of serving children. "Commercial networks could do this now, voluntarily," Duggan wrote. "Their competitors in the cable industry have shown the way by creating C-SPAN, cable's own public affairs network."
"Broadcast television gained many benefits from the Telecommunications Act of 1996," Duggan continued. "Advancing the mission of public broadcasting is a chance to show generosity--and a real concern for America's children."
Last fall, PBS and APTS asked the FCC to develop rules that would help foster such sponsorship arrangements. In joint comments to the commission, PBS and APTS cited the high costs of producing educational children's programs and the financial losses to commercial stations for scheduling such fare.
PBS/APTS urged the FCC to adopt a flexible approach that would allow commercial entities to contribute to public TV's kidvid lineup, or to produce programs that would air on public TV regionally or nationally.
However, some prominent children's TV advocates and producers oppose this approach.
In its own comments to the FCC last fall, the Children's Television Workship warned that program sponsorship would create a "ghetto stigma" for host stations that carry the educational fare. CTW predicted that wealthy stations would become sponsors and carry a minimal amount of educational or "core" programming, thus "diminishing the public perception of the importance of such programming."
If the commission does adopt a program sponsorship option for broadcasters, CTW urged it to prohibit public TV stations from being host stations. "Congress found insufficient educational programming on commercial stations, not on noncommercial outlets."
In an interview, Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television, said PBS's sponsorship proposal undercuts the Children's Television Act's central purpose--to increase and improve the programming choices for children across all broadcast channels.
She was outraged by the timing of Duggan's op-ed. "Just as the FCC is right at the cusp of making the Children's Television Act work--that's when a story appears in the New York Times that says 'Hey, give it all to me,' " she said. "It's so disconcerting, I fell off my chair at breakfast."
"I have used 'greedy grinches' to describe commercial broadcasters," she added. "Here's a public broadcaster being a greedy grinch."
Charren described the idea that public television could serve "all of America's children" as "dumb, if not sort of arrogant." Her local public TV station WGBH, Boston, is already airing children's programs all day. " 'GBH is entitled to all kinds of support from the public, but not as a way of permitting other stations in the market not to serve kids."
Advocates' objections to public television's sponsorship proposal drew a response from PBS and APTS last fall. Some commenters, they said, are "concerned that sponsorship will provide a loophole for broadcasters seeking to reduce their commitment to children's programming and result in a net loss, rather than a net gain, in the number of educationally effective children's programs," wrote PBS and APTS in reply comments to the FCC last November. "Public television shares this concern, but believes that careful implementation, rather than wholesale rejection of the sponsorship concept, is a better approach."
PBS/APTS emphasized that their original comments called on the FCC to evaluate the sponsorship proposal by determining whether it will "further the goal of increasing the quantity of educationally effective children's programming available in the marketplace."
"A clear sponsorship policy statement, backed by coherent rules, would provide licensees with additional guidance on how to meet their responsibilities under the CTA, not permit licensees to avoid or evade those responsibilities."
The commission had not worked out a final agreement on the new children's television rules as of last week.
To Current's home page
Current Briefing: Kidvid that's good for kids?
Earlier news: Public broadcasters endorse the option of (presumably commercial) TV stations "sponsoring" educational kidvid on other (presumably public) stations.
Later news: FCC regulation permits but doesn't really push "sponsorship."
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