More Kids TV, But Better?
New FCC rules rekindle debate defining educational fare
By Bill McConnell -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/19/2004 8:00:00 PM
The FCC wants to spur a bull market for children's educational programming. But higher quotas it recently imposed on TV stations have renewed a debate over which shows should qualify.
Some critics of broadcasters say many stations meet a three-hour weekly quota by airing cartoons and other programs with little informational value. They say a new FCC rule generally requiring broadcasters to add three hours of educational kids shows on each of their multicast channels won't mean much if the same kinds of shows are simply recycled.
The new rules were criticized by the NAB and others, but the expanded menu offers Andy Heyward, chairman of DIC Entertainment and one of the most prolific producers of children's shows, an unexpected opportunity to expand his business tremendously.
DIC has produced programs that seem laudable, including Liberty's Kids, a cartoon adaptation of the American Revolution starring Walter Cronkite as the voice of Ben Franklin.
But on another front, the activist United Church of Christ and others have asked the FCC to deny license renewals for Fox's WDCA Washington for including DIC's Ace Lightning and Stargate Infinity in its list of educational kids shows.
The two shows lack "any significant educational purpose" and were actively "antisocial" because they contain violence, the activist groups said in petitions to the FCC opposing renewal.
Heyward, who says he is "furious" with attacks on his company, insists that all 10 programs comprising DIC's branded three-hour educational kids block were developed with advice from child-development specialists (see Airtime, page 46).
American University professor and longtime kids-TV advocate Kathryn Montgomery is glad the FCC moved forward, but she worries that the networks will spread their current libraries "as thinly as possible" to comply. Others agree.
"There's much more to educational programming than making a cartoon with a few historical characters," says Deborah Forte, president of Scholastic Entertainment, which produces the Clifford TV series and The Magic School Bus.The kids issue will heat up over the next year, thanks to a spike in demand expected to result from the new quotas. Typically, stations will be able to multicast up to six channels at a time, meaning those that take full advantage of the capability would air up to 18 hours a week.
To meet the new digital threshold, the additional kids programs can run on a dedicated children's channel rather than be spread among several channels. However, the children's channel must have the same cable or satellite distribution as the "primary" channel, which must retain today's three hours of kids programs no matter where the rest is added.
The added obligation is part of a larger effort by the FCC to update its kids-programming rules for the digital age. The rules, approved Sept. 9, also subject multicasts to limits on advertising and preemptions during kids shows.
At the heart of the debate is the FCC's reluctance to spell out exactly what qualifies as educational programming. In 1996, the agency left it to broadcasters to decide, spurring complaints that stations sometimes tried to sneak in shows like The Flintstonesby arguing that they taught kids about prehistoric life. Several station groups were embarrassed when those attempts came to light, and few go that far anymore, but the debate over quality continues.
DIC, which syndicates children's shows like Inspector Gadget and Strawberry Shortcaketo more than 400 stations, hopes to create a kids network and intends to mine its library of more than 3,000 episodes of animated programming and produce more. It also is buying back some it has been syndicating; it just took back Liberty's Kids from PBS and will add 40 new episodes. DIC also plans to reacquire Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? from Fox. Another plan on the drawing board is to add local content and Spanish-language programming.
The new obligations don't kick in for another year, and the big station groups haven't made any commitments for new shows. But DIC is gearing up for an expected jump in demand. Says Heyward, "At some point, all the stations will be digital, and it's important they meet the needs of children in a meaningful way."
Additional reporting by Anne Becker and John Eggerton
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