Summit pact at White House permits broadcasters to "sponsor" educational kidvid on another station

Originally published in Current, Aug. 5, 1996

By Karen Everhart Bedford

The latest agreement on children's educational television includes a key sponsorship provision sought by public broadcasters, but its potential as a new funding stream for public TV's children's service remains unclear.

A White-House-brokered compromise between broadcasters and children's TV advocates--announced with great fanfare at a children's television summit on July 29-- establishes the three-hour weekly standard supported in Congress and by the Clinton Administration. It also allows stations to demonstrate their service to children by sponsoring programming on other TV outlets in their market.

The deal--reached just hours before 54 children's TV leaders gathered in the gilded East Room of the White House--released political pressure that had been building since the FCC failed to break a deadlock over new kidvid rules (Current, July 8 and 22).

"This proposal fulfills the promise of the Children's Television Act--that television should serve the educational and informational needs of our young people,'' said President Clinton. "It gives broadcasters flexibility in how to meet those needs. And it says to America's parents, you are not alone; we are committed to working with you to see that educational programming for your children makes the grade.''

"If [National Association for Broadcasters President] Eddie Fritts signed on, and I'm happy, it's got to be a great day for television,'' said Peggy Charren, founder of the children's TV movement. "I have no qualms that this is going to create a market for what's missing.''

Among the participants in the summit was PBS President Ervin Duggan, who said he had "never seen a better use of the bully pulpit at the White House.'' He called on the broadcast industry to overcome its "conceptual barrier'' that unnecessarily distinguishes between educational and entertaining programming for kids.

The stars of several PBS shows also spoke at the summit: Bill Nye, Fred Rogers and Reading Rainbow's LeVar Burton.

Rogers stole the show in his remarks. He called for a half-minute of silence so that all participants could reflect on the adults who had influenced their development as children, and recited his song, "What Do You Do with the Mad that You Feel?''

"We have to help children become aware that what's most important in life is invisible,'' Rogers said.

Devil in the details

Although many details of the compromise remain sketchy--the FCC itself has to write it up and approve it--it appears to make program sponsorship less than attractive for commercial broadcasters who want to avoid snafus during license renewal.

In an interview after the summit, Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Center for Media Education and a participant in negotiations with broadcasters, said the sponsorship provision would come into play only in cases of "noncompliance''--for stations that did not meet the FCC's processing guidelines.

The proposed compromise offers broadcasters three ways to meet the new children's TV standards:

  • Stations that meet the three-hour weekly standard simply would check-off a box on their renewal applications and provide supporting materials about their kidvid offerings. The FCC's Mass Media Bureau staff would have authority to approve CTA compliance on these applications.
  • Stations that air less than three weekly hours could still receive staff-level approval, if they demonstrate a roughly equivalent commitment to children by airing educational specials, short-form programs and PSAs.
  • Stations that do not meet this processing guideline would have to go before the commission to demonstrate that they had fulfilled their obligations to children through sponsorship and other nonbroadcast activities. The agreement specifies that a station's program sponsorship would have to increase the amount of qualifying "core'' programming on the host station.

    The compromise tweaks the definition of "core'' programming--shows that will count toward a station's weekly minimum. Such fare must be "specifically designed'' to educate and inform children under age 16 and be at least 30 minutes long. It also specifies that core programs should air between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. on a regular weekly basis.

    Broadcasters also would have to meet several public information requirements. They would identify core programs on-air prior to broadcast--in a form at each station's discretion--and in the schedules they provide to publishers of TV program guides. They would also be required to specify the target audience of core programs in their TV listings information. Another provision that will allow communities to monitor broadcasters' compliance requires stations to place quarterly reports on their efforts to serve children in their public files.

    Negotiators' agreement to leave on-air IDs for core programs up to individual stations is a setback for Duggan's proposed educational icon. During the summit, Geraldine Laybourne, president of Disney/ABC cable networks and president of the Nickelodeon network, said any effort at "educational labelling will backfire.''

    "If you label programming as educational, it will serve as a beacon for kids to turn it off,'' she predicted.

    Duggan later responded, saying that in the 500-channel universe, good programs are "going to need a label'' if viewers are to find them. When he proposed the idea in May, he described it as a way to create a "beacon for parents and producers alike--a distinctive icon that identifies children's programs which meet agreed-upon educational standards.''

    Duggan recently presented the icon proposal to the V-chip implementation committee, which is developing the voluntary sex and violence television ratings system. The committee will consider the proposal, along with the many others before it, as it crafts the new system, according to a spokesman for the Motion Picture Association, which is spearheading the implementation group.

    Next stop: FCC

    It remains to be seen whether the White House compromise will retain its luster after the FCC takes it up. After the summit Chairman Reed Hundt promised speedy action on the new rules. But Commissioner James Quello, a steadfast opponent of stronger kidvid rules, said he would "reserve final judgment until I review a final draft'' of the rules.

    In a Wall Street Journal op-ed on July 24, Quello wrote that the regulations then under discussion were "as intrusive and overregulatory as anything I have witnessed in more than two decades at the FCC.'' He specifically objected that commercial broadcasters would have "virtually no incentive to finance the broadcast of educational shows on local PBS stations.''

    Predicting that Quello will accede on a plan endorsed by broadcasters would be premature. He announced early this summer that he would agree to a three-hour standard, prompting children's TV advocates to declare the issue had finally been resolved. Then Quello determined the proposed rules weren't flexible enough, and withdrew his support. White House pressure, congressional pressure, and even the NAB endorsment, might not sway him on the latest plan.

    After all, he's already faced disapproval from a higher power. In a speech to the Public Radio News Directors prior to the summit, Hundt revealed that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had written to Quello, telling the commissioner it was disappointed in his position. The Catholic Church, Hundt noted, is "not an everyday lobbyist at the FCC.''


    To Current's home page

    Current Briefing: Kidvid that's good for kids?

    Earlier news: Pubcasters endorse the option of "sponsorship," 1995.

    Later news: FCC regulation permits but doesn't really push the "sponsorship" option.


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