Sex-Role Stereotyping in FCC-Mandated Children's Educational Television

Article excerpt

Traditionally, the socialization of our children has been performed by societal institutions including educational, religious, family, and peer groups. In the past several decades, however, a new socializing agent has joined (and perhaps surpassed) the others as a vital socializing influence. For the first time in human history, a centralized commercial institution other than parents, church, or school, tells most of the stories to our children (Signorielli, 1990). This institution is television, arguably the most popular, constant, and consistent source of information on, among other things, socialization, including that which is expected, accepted, and taken for granted.

The accessibility and seductiveness of television combine to produce striking (but all too familiar) statistics about the sheer volume of programming which children consume. A more telling statistic, however, may be the fact that by the time a child reaches kindergarten, she will "know" more television characters than real people (Liebert & Sprafkin, 1988). These fantasy characters show children how to behave, how to be accepted, what to value, and what is normal. In short, they provide children with the validating information used to learn and internalize the ways of their society. One of the most obvious and important characteristics of television characters is their gender, and one of the most important "lessons" that children learn from TV characters is how gender fits into society.

Recognizing the importance of such lessons, this study examined gender within children's television programming. Specifically, its purpose was to examine sex-role stereotyping within a new category of children's television--FCC-mandated educational core programming, the newly designated three hour group of shows which every station must air weekly in order to be awarded license renewal from the FCC.

While other studies have examined similar sex-role stereotyping on children's television in general, the present study holds special significance because it deals with FCC-mandated educational shows. The fact that these shows must satisfy the FCC-defined educational and informational needs of children may lead to a "stamp-of-approval" perception among the public. The programs are identified as educational/informational (E/I) in television program listings and carry a notice at the beginning of the show to notify viewers of this categorization. Parents may be more willing to allow and to encourage their children to watch such shows--not based on any analysis of the programs themselves--but simply based on the appearance of such symbols.

Evidence of the public's unquestioning approval of E/I programming appears in a survey commissioned by Broadcasting & Cable magazine and conducted by Roper Starch Worldwide. The survey found that while 63% of the respondents had never even heard of the FCC E/I regulation, 82% either somewhat or strongly favored it, and 79% thought that E/I programming would do some or a lot of good for children (Media Report Card, 1997). This stamp-of-approval mentality may lead parents to assume the shows are free from any potentially harmful content and that they are intrinsically "better" than shows which do not carry any labels.

Given the influence of television in the socialization of young people and the FCC stamp of approval placed on this new category of programming, it is important to take a closer look at these programs, especially the social lessons they teach our children. The main goal of this study was to examine sex-role stereotyping within FCC-mandated E/I programming by analyzing the social behaviors of male and female characters.

History of E/I Programming

E/I programs represent the culmination of a nearly four-decade long debate among the government, broadcasters, the FCC, and community groups to establish definable educational programming. A major step in this debate occurred in 1990 when Congress enacted the Children's Television Act (CTA). …