August 8, 1996

Separate Statement
Commissioner Susan Ness

Re: Children's Television Programming Report and Order

If I had it to do over again, I would concentrate every effort on improving children's television. For, as Gabriela Mistral, the Chilean poet who won the Nobel prize wrote, 'We are guilty of many errors and faults, but the worst crime is abandoning our children.'

-- Newt Minow, former FCC Chairman

Today this Commission embraces the wisdom of former Chairman Minow. At long last, we are clarifying the level of expectation attached to broadcasters' responsibility to serve the educational and informational needs of children. Almost thirty years after Action for Children's Television began its quest to improve broadcasters' service to children, and six years after Congress advanced that effort with enactment of the Children's Television Act, we are now empowering parents, teachers, and broadcasters alike, to act upon their best impulses as guardians of our nation's youth.

Television can be a strong and positive force. It can help children to learn. It can reinforce rather than undermine the values we work so hard to teach our children.

-- President Clinton

Free, over-the-air broadcasting plays a unique role in this country. Even today one- third of households do not subscribe to cable, and these are disproportionately low-income families. Moreover, most of the viewing on cable is of retransmitted broadcast signals, and many cable subscribers do not subscribe to the program tiers or a la carte offerings that feature educational and informational programming.

Broadcasters enjoy special privileges, including the use of valuable public airwaves, which carry with them special responsibilities. Today's ruling reinvigorates that public interest compact. And importantly, today's ruling provides broadcasters with the guidance and the clarity they need to fulfill those responsibilities.

I believe that we need your help, and that of your Commission. I'm probably running in the face of millions of dollars of lobbying, but I believe our industry needs a strong advocate on behalf of the public . . . . Whether it's children's television [or certain other topics], please, keep us all honest. We're capable of doing the right thing. We only need to be reminded. Constantly.

-- Letter from TV station executive

Today we tangibly define the "core" children's programming that all broadcasters must provide, with an emphasis on regularly scheduled programs of standard length, aired during hours that significant numbers of children are in the audience. In turn, we require broadcasters to specify the target audiences and educational purposes of the programs they air to fulfill their Children's Television Act responsibility. We require that these programs be identified as educational at the time they are broadcast and in information provided to television program guides. These measures will facilitate meaningful, real-time dialogue between broadcasters and their communities about children's programs; they will enable parents to select the shows they believe to be most beneficial to their children; and they will reduce the likelihood that this agency will be called upon, at license renewal time, to second- guess assertions that particular shows are educational.

The central feature of today's ruling is a three-hour safe harbor processing guideline, which I have long favored. It offers broadcasters the twin advantages of certainty and flexibility, and it is First Amendment-friendly. It is certain, for it establishes a clear level of expectation: three hours -- a mere two percent of the broadcast week. It is flexible, for broadcasters may exercise their creativity to fulfill their commitment in ways that are not susceptible to purely quantitative evaluation. And it is First Amendment-friendly, precisely because it combines these attributes.

Broadcasters will no longer have to guess what is expected of them, and we will remedy the current marketplace distortions caused by excessively ambiguous rules. Broadcasters who strive to satisfy their responsibility to children will no longer face competitive pressure to emulate those who make only trivial efforts; the three-hour benchmark will apply to everyone.

We hope and expect that many broadcasters will choose to air more than three hours of core programming, and that they will continue to serve children through non-core programming as well. The three-hour benchmark is a floor, not a ceiling. But a three-hour- per-week commitment to core programming is all that is necessary to demonstrate compliance with the Children's Television Act -- and to receive expedited processing by the Mass Media Bureau at license renewal.

As I have often noted, a strict three-hour quota based on standard-length, regularly scheduled programming would be too restrictive. The educational and informational needs of children can also be served by specials, short-form programs, public service announcements, and programs aired outside of the "core" hours. There must be -- and in "Category B" of our new rules there is -- room for broadcasters to offer somewhat less than three hours if their other programming activities, taken together with the core programming, represent an equivalent commitment to meeting the educational and informational needs of children. The focus here is necessarily on programs with a significant purpose of educating children, not general audience programming that has some educational value.

Of course, the "comparable commitment" called for under Category B cannot be evaluated simply by adding up minutes. Educational programs aired before 7:00 a.m. cannot be credited the same as those aired during the hours we have designated as core. Airing shows that are specifically designed to meet the educational and informational needs of children during prime time -- when the potential audience is at its peak -- is an extra effort entitled to extra credit. Category B has the flexibility to weigh these kinds of factors.

Those who distinguish themselves through significant non-core efforts that are specifically designed to educate children, in addition to core efforts of nearly three hours, receive the same expedited staff approval as those who air three hours of core programming. It is important to emphasize that Category B is intended for those whose level of commitment is at least equivalent to the safe harbor, but who choose to discharge their responsibility in slightly different ways. Category B is not a safe haven for those whose commitment is lacking.

The President has been working hard to establish a minimum requirement for television broadcasters: all that we are asking is for three hours a week of educational, child-friendly programming. I don't think that is too much to ask.

-- First Lady Hillary Clinton

The American public has voiced its support for this fortified commitment to quality children's programming. During the course of this proceeding, the Commission received more than 20,000 letters urging stronger implementation of the Children's Television Act. A majority of members of the House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, and even President Clinton wrote in support of a three-hour standard. So did the National PTA, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and numerous other national, state, and local organizations.

Today we are not writing the end of the children's television story; this is only the preface. Now it is up to the writers, directors, actors, network executives, station managers, syndicators, schedulers, advertisers, parents, and other concerned citizens to ensure that the promise to America's children is fulfilled.

I predict that the near-term future will bring an abundance of children's programming that is innovative and exciting, as well as educational and informational. Already, the creative and broadcast communities are rising to the challenge -- and seizing the opportunity. We can reasonably hope that foundations will direct financial resources to the creation of innovative educational shows, that newspapers will find it worthwhile to feature educational listings in prominent ways, that advertisers will find ways to do well by doing good, and that broadcasters will compete as aggressively to serve children for a few hours a week as they do for ratings.

For too long, the children's television debate has focused on the FCC. Now that our job is done, the focus must shift to those who must develop and schedule programming that is educational and entertaining.

Broadcasters, it's time to stand and deliver.