TV Stations Try to Toe the Line on Better Programs for Children

Article excerpt

PRODDED by Congress, television stations are sharply increasing the number of children's programs they carry. But the kind of programming they offer is coming under scrutiny.

The surge in both animated and live-action shows for young audiences is evident at the independent stations - who consider these programs an economic and public relations plus.

The three major networks, however, provide a minimum of children's programming, except for Saturday morning cartoons which serve to promote products.

The Children's Television Act, passed last October by Congress, is designed to limit the number of commercials shown during children's shows, and to require commercial broadcast stations to prove that their programming serves educational purposes.

What the problem boils down to is the traditional conflict between the ratings-and-money-oriented TV industry, and those who maintain that television has responsibilities that go beyond commercial considerations; that television executives must recognize and make realistic concessions to the medium's powerful influence on children.

"If America's children are to become more literate, more numerate, more civic-minded, more prepared for formal schooling, and more prepared for lifelong learning, we need more children's TV programming - and better programming," says Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association.

The Children's Television Act, to be enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in effect obligates the stations to carry a certain number of programs designed to "develop children's intellectual skills."

Critics say that the commission's definitions of what constitutes educational TV are too vague and need to be more tightly and explicitly redefined to properly serve the purpose.

The Children's TV Act also creates a national advisory council to monitor the quality of children's TV programming; and it limits advertising on shows for the young to 12 minutes an hour weekdays and 10 1/2 minutes during weekends. This, in theory at least, eliminates the kind of action-cartoon programs which constitute one long commercial, designed strictly to promote the sale of certain toys.

The problem of insufficient educational content in programs aimed at children, a problem painfully evident at ABC, CBS, and NBC on Saturday mornings, is beginning to find its mirror image in Europe.

For decades, the state-controlled European TV networks have routinely programmed shows for youngsters every weekday afternoon and also on weekends, much the way the US networks used to do. Now, the enormous growth of new, privately owned commercial stations is threatening that pattern.

"We carry an hour a day of children's shows," said Marcus Scheechter, head of children's programming for Germany's state-run ZDF TV network. "We are proud of our children's programs. They are very carefully designed, but now the commercial stations 'counter-program' with hours of just cartoons. They undercut us, and we may have to change our schedule. It's a very bad situation."

A similar comment comes from Ed Pugh, the children's editor for Britain's Granada Television. "If and when the satellite channels start carrying shows for kids, we'll be competing with a flood of meaningless cartoons," he says.

While children's programs on the three major US networks have declined - from a one-time 12 hours a week during the early '70s down to a current five hours - commercials on all channels still have significant impact on young audiences.

And, according to Mr. Geiger, 1990 research showed that roughly 20 percent of children's viewing time last year was consumed by advertisements.

(Efforts to reach Judy Price, vice-president in charge of children's programming at CBS, a network that once led in that area, were unsuccessful.)

All three networks, particularly ABC and CBS, used to carry after-school specials. …

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