TV agreement does little to help kids

The four major broadcast networks — ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox — finally bowed to heavy pressure from Congress and the White House and agreed to air at least three hours a week of educational programming for children. This is a step in the right direction, but does anyone expect a mere three hours a week of quality TV to amount to anything more than a drop in the bucket?
The typical preschooler sits in front of the TV set for as many as 28 hours a week; by age 18, American children have watched 25,000 hours of television. The “breakthrough” agreement engineered by President Clinton will only provide for roughly one-half hour of worthwhile programming a day. This achievement — contrary to the beliefs of many children’s advocates and politicians — is anything but exemplary.
Broadcasters will now have to air a minimum of three hours a week of regularly scheduled educational programs that last at least 30 minutes, all between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Networks that fall short of the three-hour mandate may choose to make up the difference by sponsoring off-air educational events, paying other stations to air acceptable programming, or airing shorter children’s specials and public-service announcements. According to the agreement, broadcasters will have to meet these requirements in order to renew their licenses. The agreement is pending Federal Communications Commission approval, which chairman Reed Hundt hinted is likely.
It’s disturbing that it took so much political maneuvering to get the networks to consent to the plan, considering children constitute a large chunk of the viewing public. But the reason broadcasters are apathetic when it comes to children is easy: money. Children don’t have any money, so in the eyes of television magnates they may as well not exist.
Even though it’s woefully inadequate, the agreement does open the door for an expansion of children’s programming in the future — something the Children’s Television Act of 1990 did not do. But it’s interesting that Congress continues to hack the heart out of funding for public broadcasting, which is responsible for children’s TV mainstays like “Sesame Street” and “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.” Only nonprofit public broadcasting has the sort of record Congress and the president appear to be looking for. It has provided solid, intelligent children’s programming for decades. Cable programming — a major competitor for the attention of the nation’s young viewers — will likely remain unaffected by the agreement. We applaud the congressional and presidential action on this issue, but we question whether it is motivated by a genuine interest in children or the quest for re-election.
Beneficial children’s programming is expensive and difficult to create. And the demand for characters who kick and punch far outweighs the demand for programs featuring a purple dinosaur. The only things that will convince networks to look beyond the bottom line are continued pressure and a government that puts its money where its mouth is. Such a framework is in place, but without further attempts to persuade public and private networks that children do indeed exist, this agreement will prove meaningless.