Originally published in Current, Aug. 19, 1996
By Karen Everhart Bedford
New, tightened regulations on children's educational television were adopted unanimously by the FCC Aug. 8 . Passage of the rules had been blocked by a split among commissioners until Congress and the Clinton Administration began agitating for action this spring.
The regs go into effect in two phases next year. In January, broadcast stations will have to fulfill new public information requirements--such as identifying programs on-air, and maintaining public files on compliance with the Children's Television Act. As of September, stations applying for license renewals will have to demonstrate that they aired three hours a week of programming "specifically designed" to serve children's educational and informational needs.
Stations have some flexibility in meeting the new standards--by broadcasting kidvid specials or short-form programs, for example--but those that do not air the three-hour minimum or its equivalent will face increased scrutiny during license renewals.
As negotiated prior to the recent White House summit on children's TV, the rules would recognize sponsorship arrangements between stations, but only when they increase the amount of children's programming on the host station--presumably, public TV stations, in many cases. Sponsoring stations could use the deals to demonstrate that they had complied with the Children's Television Act, but their cases will be considered by the commission itself rather than reviewed by the FCC staff.
In the order that mandates the new regulations, the FCC noted that sponsoring programs on another station does not relieve a licensee of its own obligation to broadcast educational programs.
As the rule is written, sponsorship is "not the easiest option for broadcasters," acknowledged Tom Epstein, PBS spokesman. PBS intends to such pursue such arrangements, but sees more potential in developing new programming partnerships. "We look forward to working with other producers and networks that now must create more educational programming."
Public broadcasters had urged the FCC to beef-up and expand the kidvid law's sponsorship provision so that commercial outlets could underwrite public TV's children's service on a statewide, regional or national basis. Children's TV advocates opposed this approach because, they argued, the intent of the law was to improve TV fare for children across all channels.
In the order, the FCC declined to specify guidelines on sponsorship arrangements, as PBS and APTS had requested in comments filed jointly last fall. "We believe these matters are best addressed on a case-by-case basis considering individual showings licensees may seek to make rather than by the adoption of program sponsorship guidelines."
Even though the rules specify that sponsoring stations will have to undergo full commission review for their children's service to be judged in compliance, "we still see it as a welcome to working with commercial broadcasting toward the same goals, to increase the amount of educational programs for children," said Lonna Thompson, director of legal affairs at America's Public Television Stations (APTS).
Station executives with extensive experience as commercial broadcasters offered different predictions of what effect the new rules would have on public TV's children's service. George Miles, president of WQED in Pittsburgh, foresaw opportunities for the programming partnerships PBS is seeking. He noted that commercial broadcasters will most likely prefer to bring new programs to their own air than sponsor it on other channels.
Steve Antoniotti, president of WTVS and former head of a CBS affiliate in Detroit, also found few incentives for sponsorship. He questioned whether commercial broadcasters' new demand for quality kidvid would be a boon for public TV. "The federal guidelines have created a marketplace. That's good for children and it also could be good for commercial broadcasters."
But commercial broadcasters now will be eager to buy programs that are already being produced, Antoniotti said, and their ability to pay more and bring a bigger audience to shows could drain public TV's production talent. "This runs counter to the things I've heard that the new regulations will be good for public broadcasting. I don't see it that way."
Miles downplayed this potential outcome. Losing "good quality producers to the commercial has always been a problem for public TV. "What's going to happen is there will be more opportunities for creative people to have an outlet for their product."
The new law also requires broadcasters to identify their educational children's fare on the air and in program listings materials, but leaves the form of the on-air ID up to individual stations. PBS's Epstein said the requirement helps advance PBS President Ervin Duggan's proposal to establish a icon that would mark educational kidvid.
"Broadcasters are now obliged to signal which programs qualify as educational and put it in their listings and on the air," he said. "That is exactly the concept we were pursuing." Since a uniform icon would be easier for viewers to recognize, PBS is "happy" to talk with commercial broadcasters about how to best identify children's educational programs.
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Current Briefing: Kidvid that's good for kids?
Earlier news: Clinton gets kidvid summit agreement from TV industry, summer 1996.
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