June 22, 1998
(As prepared for delivery)
"Kid-Tested Quality Programming: The News on the New Programs"
It's a pleasure to join you again for the Third Annual Conference on Children and Television. The Annenberg Public Policy Center has been at the forefront of shaping the policy debate on children and television.
So often in Washington, policy makers promulgate regulations and then take a "been there, done that" approach to an issue. But you who have long labored on children's television, know full well that it's the first year or two of rule implementation that is the key to its success or failure.
That's why your research and your conferences are vital to our effort to improve the quality and quantity of children's educational television.
I applaud your contributions -- and your perseverance.
How well is it working? Preliminary Assessment
This is the first year that your annual Children's Television Conference is able to include discussion of the actual effects of new FCC requirements on broadcasters to air "educational and information" programming.
How well have we done?
I'm cautiously optimistic. There is much basis for encouragement, yet much more needs to be done.
The new minimum of three hours per week of "core Educational and Informational programming" went into effect last September. And from the initial reports filed for the quarter ended 12/31/97, I offer the following observations:
In sum, I believe that the vast majority of commercial broadcasters have accepted the need to provide at least three hours of educational programming and are making a good-faith effort to comply with the letter and spirit of the rules.
It almost goes without saying -- but is important to highlight -- that public broadcasting continues to be a beacon in the provision of quality children's educational programming. The Annenberg Report notes that 99.1% of PBS's children's programming scored as having high educational content and no violence.
I will confine my remarks today to commercial broadcasting.
Quantitatively we have achieved a milestone. But how educational are the programs being aired?
That, in the first instance, is for the public to determine.
The Commission's rules were designed to empower the community to determine whether broadcasters are meeting their obligations under the Children's Television Act.
The Commission is not poised to second guess the good faith programming judgments of broadcasters. The First Amendment circumscribes the FCC or any government agency from making content-based evaluations. I admire my friend Peggy Charren's view, which might be characterized as being intensely pro-children and just as intensely anti-censorship.
Rather, we have provided the tools with which you -- the public -- can form your judgments. As I noted, the Commission lists all the programs stations designate on their reports as "educational and informational." This list is available on our website at "www.fcc.gov" for anyone to reference. Indeed, we are counting on people to take a look at what stations are reporting.
Our staff looks at the programs reported as educational and informational. Usually, narrative descriptions explain the basis for inclusion of the program in the report. In some cases, we may ask for additional information regarding particular programming.
The study which the Annenberg Public Policy Center is releasing today includes an extremely helpful analysis of the core programming aired in the 4th quarter of 1997 -- again, our first reporting period since the new requirements became effective. Among other things, it found that the top scoring educational and informational programs were distributed among ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and syndicated sources. It also notes that these shows include both traditional academic lessons and social/emotional skill development, and targeted a wide range of age groups.
Anecdotal evidence confirms my impression that the rules have spawned a mini-renaissance in children's programming. Indeed, some programmers have credited the three hour guideline with their very existence. Many of these programs would not have been picked up but for the Children's Television Act.
And some of the new programming has been spectacular. The acid test is my nine year old son, David -- who, if left to his own devices, would spend the day on the three C's: cartoons, comics, and computers. Yet, he is a big fan of Science Court.
One network in particular has achieved critical success -- and high ratings -- for their innovative children's educational programming. ABC's One Saturday Morning has proven decisively that quality children's programming can be both educational and entertaining. The two are not mutually exclusive. The Annenberg research rated the segments of One Saturday Morning either highly or moderately educational.
But it should be noted that ABC intensively promoted its One Saturday Morning. It gave its two hour educational block the same care and feeding that it gives its prime time fare.
Not all shows met the expectations of their network hosts. For example, CBS has chosen to revamp its children's educational lineup for the fall. It has selected programming from Nelvana -- the creators of the Magic School Bus. I can't wait to sample their new shows.
But just because shows did not work for the station or network does not mean that children's educational programming is deficient as a genre. Cancellations are a regular part of the television business. I have been told that Seinfeld, for example, took four years to become a success. It was not an overnight hit, but was a last minute mid-season replacement, then floundered near the bottom of the ratings for years before it finally took off. Why should children's programming be any different?
The Challenges Ahead
While we have seen some positive results from the revised kidvid rule, many challenges remain in our effort to increase the quality and quantity of educational children's television fare. Three come to mind: better program identification; parental involvement; and promotion and scheduling.
1. Listing services and newspapers need to highlight E/I shows. I am delighted that TV Guide has been including the E/I icon next to each program identified by broadcasters.
Unfortunately, newspapers and other listing services are not generally including the E/I icon. And I was disappointed that only 9% of parents apparently know what the E/I icon means. That may be due to confusion sowed by the concurrent introduction of the V-Chip rating system.
2. Involvement of parents and concerned adults is needed. Again, the thrust of our rules is to empower parents -- if they know which shows are designated as E/I and if they know when those shows are scheduled, they are more likely to encourage their kids to watch. And if a show like X-Men is designated as educational, parents can respond to the station.
The Center for Media Education led the way last fall with their publication of a "preview guide" to the new Educational and Informational programs. I'm told they plan a repeat of
this easy-to-use digest that gives parents and concerned adults a key to the shows that CME considers the best of the offerings.
Annenberg is also in a great position to spread the word about the shows you believe have merit.
Again, PTAs and other parents groups need to get plugged into making their own assessments of what their local broadcast stations are offering. If parents and educators are not satisfied with the educational content of programs being aired -- take charge. Meet with your local stations. Write or call the networks. If groups worked over the summer to evaluate the local choices, they could be ready to unveil their recommendations for the fall TV season.
Action at the local level makes such a difference in getting newspapers and other media to cover the story. It's also important because some stations are creating their own, high-quality, locally based shows. Stations need community encouragement to continue to provide such local programming.
This is extremely important: If parents and community groups do not get involved at the local level, stations will treat children's educational programming as an obligation -- not an opportunity.
3. Promotion and appropriate scheduling could be improved. New shows need the recipe for success that we've learned from prime time and other dayparts: One part promotion mixed with a good time slot.
The big question this spring has been: which NBC primetime sitcom will be lucky enough to land the old Seinfeld slot at 9 p.m. on Thursdays? Each week, millions of viewers have made mental appointments to watch NBC at that time and whatever the network programs there will certainly benefit from ingrained viewing habits. So, too, is it important for quality kids programs to be regularly scheduled so they can become "appointment viewing" for the younger crowd.
Last fall, ABC, CBS, and NBC each requested permission to make a limited number of preemptions in their children's E/I schedule to accommodate major sports broadcasts.
As a tradeoff, I wanted the networks to commit to (a) providing a "second" home for the shows to move to and (b) extra promotion for the program, including prime time announcements. We are following up with each of the networks, asking them to describe the steps they have taken to ensure the success of their educational and informational programs.
I know that these are also areas identified by Annenberg for further study.
I encourage Annenberg to evaluate how best to ensure that parents know which are quality educational programs and when they are aired. We must find a way to better engage the public to maximize the value of these quality programs for children.
As we complete this initial year under our revised children's educational television rules, all players are assessing what works and what doesn't. A bevy of new producers, writers, and creative folks are focusing their talents on new quality programming for children.
But the true test is the audience. The early results show that there is no single formula for success. We know that networks, syndicators, and local stations can all produce quality programming that kids like. They have done so. The diversity of themes, the diversity of targeted age groups, the diversity of program structures have been demonstrated.
Now it is up to all of us -- as a community -- to make this work.
The momentum is heading in the right direction and we have every reason to think that it will continue to build. We simply must keep encouraging and supporting the efforts of broadcasters and others -- for the betterment of our children.