They Call This Educational?

Guest Commentary

When the Children's Television Act was adopted in 1990, some stations didn't take it seriously. Shows like America's Funniest Home Videos
and Bugs Bunny
were described as educational and informational programming. One station argued that Yogi Bear
was educational because it teaches children not to do stupid things. Finally, in 1996, the FCC adopted new policies about the quality of children's programming.

On Sept. 1, the United Church of Christ and the Center for Digital Democracy filed a petition with the FCC to deny the license renewal of two Washington stations for not fulfilling their kids-programming obligations. The groups earlier asked me to review the programs, and my evaluation is included as an exhibit in the petition.

The Washington Pax station, for example, claims that Miracle Pets
is an educational program specifically designed for children, but this TV-G–rated show, while promoted as "a winner for animal lovers of all ages," is clearly intended for older adults. It is no coincidence that the commercials in episodes I watched included spots for health insurance to supplement Medicare; mail-order moustache-trimming tools; mattresses; used cars; and law-enforcement–career training coursework—but no youth-oriented products. This show certainly doesn't meet the FCC's legal standard of being "specifically designed" for children. The show doesn't address the special needs of children, including the vocabulary, approach to storytelling, music or related production conventions. Miracle Pets
is as much a children's show as Jeopardy!
or the local evening news.

Stargate Infinity
and Ace Lightning
are also claimed to be educational. In fact, they are nothing more than action-adventure programs with pervasive violence in each episode. Their claims of educational goals are hard to take seriously.

Stargate Infinity
is supposedly educational because it teaches children "how and why to get along with others." While each episode includes one or two sentences devoted to this theme, the rest of the program undercuts that overly vague goal with extensive battle scenes. Lesson: Try to get along, but if you can't, just shoot 'em.

The claim for Ace Lightning
is that it encourages children to be heroes. Presumably, that goal is fostered if kids emulate the good guys who fight the bad guys in this videogame product-driven program. By that logic, any good-guy/bad-guy show must qualify as educational.

This reminds me. A decade ago, some broadcasters argued that The Flintstones
was educational because it gave history lessons and The Jetsons
taught kids about new technologies.

I fear these latest examples are only the tip of the iceberg. Child-advocacy groups have waited too long for broadcasters to take their public-interest responsibilities to the nation's youth seriously. That is why the Washington stations' licenses are being challenged. Other stations that may face the same prospect have only themselves to blame.