Electronic Media Reviews -- on Television: Teach the Children

Article excerpt

"On Television: Teach the Children"

This documentary, which first aired on PBS in 1992, is the third in a series of hour-long programs produced by Mary Megee and her non-profit media education organization, On Television, Ltd. Each program follows a common style of addressing important media social responsibility issues first at a basic conceptual level; then surveying the relevant research knowledge, including evidence about media industry practices as well as studies of audience effects; and finally considering the current state of the law or applicable regulatory policy that pertains to the topic. The focus of this particular program is "television as teacher"--the educational role of television in today's society, encompassing both programs that are intended to teach (i.e., so-called "educational television") as well as programs intended merely to entertain.

The program is targeted at the level of an intelligent adult viewer, although not one particularly knowledgeable about media topics. It presents a basic introduction to much of the fundamental economic and policy framework of broadcast television. It touches briefly upon a range of social effects topics, including advertising, role stereo-typing, and violence. Yet the predominant emphasis is on children's television programming policy. This topic stands out in television history as one of the most complicated and controversial areas of communication regulatory policy.

Perhaps more than any other aspect of broadcasters' service, children's programming represents the clearest example of the "payback" stations must offer to fulfill their public interest obligations under the Communications Act of 1934. The licensee receives free use of a channel, but must give something back to the community, in this case content that serves the educational needs of children, in order to retain the license. Thus, the topic of children's television policy holds significance for those studying media regulation, as well as those interested more broadly in media and society concerns.

This program chronicles developments in children's programming from the early days of television up through the early 1990s, relating changes in programming practices to shifts in the regulatory winds. One of its particular strengths is the use of historical footage, including well-chosen program and commercial excerpts from decades past that illustrate many of the trends described. Similarly, important moments in television policy history are recounted with excerpts from Newton Minow's 1961 "Vast Wasteland" speech, as well as a fireside-style chat with Senator Clarence Dill, the principal author of the Communications Act of 1934, about the original legislative intent of the Act.

The program features on-camera comments from many noteworthy participants in the children's television policy debates, including Mark Fowler, Peggy Charren, and George Gerbner.

In general, the program maintains a brisk pace for a mostly-talking heads format, and while this will help to maintain attention, it comes at the cost of some depth and precision in presenting certain ideas. …