More Kids TV, But Better?

New FCC rules rekindle debate defining educational fare
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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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