Issue of Educational Value Thorny for Children's TV
Abrahms, Doug, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
Most people would agree that "Bill Nye, the Science Guy" is an educational TV program for children. "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" and "Roseanne" episodes probably wouldn't clear the bar.
The distinction is worth more than the click of a remote-control channel button.
The Federal Communications Commission is struggling to write a formal requirement for broadcasters to air children's educational shows for two or three hours a week. Renewal of their licenses would depend partly on whether they comply.
Stations already have a loosely worded obligation to run some educational programs, but with no designated minimum time.
Aside from deciding how many hours to require, the commission also is trying to spell out just what constitutes an educational show, and agreement on a definition is elusive. Some liken it to defining obscenity: You know it when you see it, said one Supreme Court justice.
"One man's education may be another man's schlock," said Phillip Spector, a communications lawyer at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. "I think in a way that is the crux of the battle. It is hard to define."
"I think there is a red-face test," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education. Television executives turn red in the face when they cite "The Jetsons" or "The Flintstones" cartoons as educational fare, he said.
"There's no right or wrong answer," said Valerie Schulte, an attorney for the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). "It's decided on the local level by the local broadcaster."
The quality of children's TV programming is again in the Washington limelight.
Rep. Ed Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, recently circulated a petition, signed by a majority of House members, asking the FCC to mandate that broadcasters air three hours of educational fare weekly for youngsters.
"Children's television has become the technological equivalent of junk food," he said. "What we're fighting for is at least three hours of children's educational programming a week."
First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed the issue yesterday, telling a national Parent-Teacher Association convention here that parents and broadcasters share responsibility for what children watch.
"We simply must demand more of the people who are producing and profiting from the shows that young people watch," she said. "From my point of view, the very popular `Mighty Morphin Power Rangers' show, for example, has no place in any lineup described as children's programming."
President Clinton has proposed a summit with broadcasting leaders next month to talk about children's programming. The NAB's board meets next week, and the subject of children's shows will top the agenda, officials said.
FCC commissioners have been divided over mandating a minimum amount of time for such programming, but the commission is expected to agree on a rule within the next month requiring at least two hours of educational fare per week.
But in seeking a tighter definition on the kinds of shows that would meet the educational criteria, the FCC is walking a fine line between effective public policy and violation of First Amendment rights. No one active in the debate is suggesting a bureaucrat should judge which programs meet the educational standard and which do not.
"The real trick to this is not having the FCC make this decision," said one agency official speaking on background. The University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications or a similarly qualified group could rate the educational quality of shows, and the FCC could take that information into account when renewing TV licenses, he said. …