When the FCC mandated that local broadcasters carry three hours a week of child-friendly programming five years ago, the hope was to make the world of TV a more child-safe place. Panelists at NATPE challenged that notion, saying the only thing it has done is made it more difficult for broadcasters to drive revenues.
Madelyn Bonnot, senior VP of operations at Emmis Communications led the charge at the session.
"We think the goverment should have no say in what we do for children. We think that PBS does an excellent job, there are whole cable networks devoted to children, and with us it's now hit or miss," commented Bonnot. "It's a terrible financial business for us, and we don't think the government should tell us to run three hours of kids programming."
Dorian Langdon, president of HIT Entertainment, said that everyone involved in children's entertainment realizes they play a significant experience in children growing up, but once it gets into regulating, issues of speech are raised. "Cablecasters and broadcasters are showing themselves to be very responsible with their programming," he added, saying that he also is not in favor of regulations, as long as broadcasters show they program responsibility.
There was a degree of cynicism concerning the government's interest, particularly the renewed interest in expanding the child-friendly programming requirement to four hours. Why? Because it's only an issue come election time, as politicians look to uphold strong values. In addition, the panelists also noted that the definition of what exactly is child friendly is so broad they still don't really know what it is.
"I could not define what their ruling is and what is pro-kids and what isn't pro-kids," said Tom Lynch, founder and CEO of Tom Lynch Co., producer of Just Deal
and Caitlin's Way. "It's all in how you present it."
Even Doug Greif, VP of program development for live action and animation, Nickelodeon, said that the network has yet to receive a definition of what constitutes educational programming. Furthermore, much programming actually fulfills the mandate without being strictly aimed at the under-16 market. For example, Dave Morgan, president and CEO of Litton Syndications, pointed out that his company's Jack Hannah's Animal Adventures
has been taken by the NAB to congressional hearings to be shown as an example of programming that serves the mandate while reaching the entire family.
There was no argument among panelists that children's programming has lost much of its attractiveness to local broadcasters from a business standpoint. Bonnot noted that revenues from children's programming plunged from $125 million five years ago when it was at its peak to $25 million this past year, a precipitous drop. On a simple level it's simply a matter of ratings, as Morgan pointed out that Litton's leading children's program pulls in a 2.2 rating.
"If you're a broadcaster and you don't have the dual revenue stream that a cable network has-a 2.2 rating at best-it's a tough business to be in," added Bonnot.
Lynch, however, said that all the difficulties would diminish if there were a hit program. "That's the challenge to people like myself. Keep inventing, and once we do that there will be a place for children's programming,"