Remarks of
FCC Commissioner Susan Ness
National Academy of Television Arts
and Sciences, D.C. Chapter

Washington, D.C.

December 9, 1994

Creating Critical Viewers and the Children's Television Act

I bring greetings from my Chairman, Reed Hundt, a former schoolteacher. Chairman Hundt has been working hard to ensure that classrooms around the country have access to the wealth of information on the information superhighway.

As the mother of a kindergartner and a fifth grader and second, as an FCC Commissioner, I am delighted to be involved in the partnership you promote today between schools and television professionals.

I know that the merging of media and educational interests can have the most wonderful results. Take, for example, the program Story Time on PBS. It recently featured the book by Carol Greene,"The Old Ladies Who Liked Cats. " I was struck by the book's ability to convey in the most simple way the concept of natural order and its importance to the environment and life.

There, a beautiful little town in the middle of an island surrounded by fields of sweet red clover fell to invaders and despair--all due to a thoughtless mayor who, after tripping over a cat, made a new law that cats must stay inside at night.

Thereafter, so the story goes, cats couldn't chase field mice, so the mice ate the honeycombs, so the long-tongued bees stopped carrying pollen, so the clover grew thin and sour, so the cows gave poor milk, so the sailors who protected the island and drank milk, became weak and sickly and one night the invaders came and took over the island.

Of course, children's books are supposed to have happy endings, so the course of events reversed when the mayor listened to the "wise old ladies who knew how things work together" and changed the law and let the cats out at night again.

Maybe its the approach of the holiday season, but I can't help but think of the combination of the beautiful art form of ballet, exquisite music and a story filled with princes, Russian, Chinese and Spanish dancers and, of course, Sugar Plum Fairies.

I hope that the partnership proposed here today proves as magical for quality children's television as the Nutcracker, and as instructive as "The Old Ladies Who Liked Cats".

The Children's Television Act of 1990

Today, I am going to talk briefly about the Children's Television Act of 1990 and the Commission's Rules implementing that Act.

All television broadcasters in this country must broadcast some informational and educational programming for children 16 years of age and younger. Also, broadcasters must limit the number of commercial minutes broadcast during programming that is specifically designed for children 12 years of age and younger. Finally, children's programming may not intermix program and related commercial matter. In other words, there may be no GI Joe commercials during a GI Joe program.

Let me review some of the issues involved with respect to each of these aspects of the Children's Television Act.

First, I need to explain that for the most part compliance with the Children's law is reviewed at television license renewal time. Television station licenses are renewed once every 5 years; and all stations in a given region of the country come up for renewal at the same time. We have just completed a renewal cycle. The cycle commences again in June 1996 when the renewal applications for those stations in D.C., Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia are scheduled to be filed.

Commercial Limits

Stations must certify in their renewal applications that they have adhered to the commercial advertising limitations in the children's programming that they broadcast during their license terms.

Specifically, stations must certify that in programming directed to children 12 years of age or younger they have broadcast no more than 12 minutes per clock hour of commercial time during weekday children's programming and no more than 10.5 minutes of commercial time per clock hour during weekend children's programming.

These commercial limits were specifically set forth by Congress when it enacted the Children's Television Act, and have been incorporated into the Commission's rules.

When a station has not complied with the rules, it must list each instance in which it has exceeded the commercial limits and indicate the reasons for going over. The number of overages, their length and the licensee's explanation are closely reviewed in order to determine whether a Commission sanction is warranted. We have fined stations as much as $80,000 for failing to comply with these rules.

Obviously, we are very serious about protecting children from over-commercialization and as you advocate, allowing them the opportunity to become critical viewers of television content without excessive commercial interruption.

Further, we absolutely require that commercial matter relating to a children's program be separated from the program with intervening, unrelated program material -- the GI Joe example.

We have also imposed the observance of a general separation policy which is an attempt to aid children in distinguishing advertising from program material. It requires that broadcasters separate the two types of content by use of special measures such as bumpers. (Bumpers are: And now it is time for a commercial break; and now back to the program.)

Our host-selling policy prohibits the use of program talent to deliver commercials. This policy applies to endorsements or selling by animated cartoon characters, as well as by live program hosts. In one case we admonished a public broadcasting station for using Sesame Street characters to advertise a "Sesame Street Live Concert".

Again, our efforts to protect children from intervening and confusing commercial material are directed toward helping them to become intelligent and observant television viewers.

Program Content

I have just discussed the commercial aspects of the Act. The programming requirements present more difficult issues. Basically, the Act requires that television licensees broadcast informational and educational programming directed toward children 16 years of age and under.

Informational and educational programming is defined as programming that furthers the positive development of the child in any respect, including the child's cognitive/intellectual or emotional/social needs.

Educational and informational programming may vary in length. However, short- segment programming is not sufficient to meet programming requirements. There must be some standard-length programming.

The Commission has set forth some "assessment guidelines" to help broadcasters determine the educational and informational needs of children in their communities. A broadcaster may take into consideration:

  1. the circumstances within the community;

  2. other programming on the licensee's station (they can rely on some general audience programming);

  3. programming aired on other broadcast stations within the community;

  4. other programs for children available on other media within the station's community of license.

However, every broadcaster has an individual obligation to broadcast some informational and educational programming.

Congress specifically declined to establish minimum programming guidelines. Nor is there a requirement that broadcasters address every age group under age 16.

Also, with respect to programming content, Congress was ever mindful of the First Amendment. It emphasized that, just as with other program matters, the Commission was to defer to the programming judgments of the broadcaster. We at the Commission do not censor program content. Further, we do not substitute our judgment on program matters for those of broadcasters.

This makes implementation of the programming requirements of the Act so very difficult. We at the Commission are committed to promoting quality informational and educational programming for children. In fact, I use every opportunity I can in meetings with Network executives, other programmers, and television station owners to move them voluntarily to increase their commitment to quality children's programming.

For programming to be successful --- to get kids to watch --- it must capture their imagination, be shown at a time that they are available to watch, and be promoted so that children and their parents know that the program is on the air. That takes a large commitment of dollars to produce quality programming, a commitment to air it at an appropriate and regular time, and a commitment to spend the dollars and effort to promote viewership.

We want to encourage programming that is fun, creative, entertaining and intelligent. However, we must also be careful not to overstep the legal limits and to become so regulatory that we actually stifle creativity.

Today, at the Commission we are grappling with whether and in what manner our rules and policies might be revised to more clearly identify the levels and types of programming necessary in the long term to adequately serve the educational and informational needs of children. In other words, is further regulation appropriate, as to the amounts of required educational and informational programming and as to what can be considered as educational and informational programming?

Last June, we invited industry leaders, including public interest groups, minority group representatives, educators, network and public television officials, to participate in an en banc hearing to discuss appropriate definitions of informational and educational programming. Testimony was also presented on such issues as how much informational and educational programming should be expected of broadcasters and the related economic problems involved in the production and distribution of children's programming. Sometime within the next few months, we will be commenting further on these issues.

TV Violence

Whenever children's programming is mentioned, the subject of violence in children's programming comes to mind. The Children's Television Act does not address the subject of violence.

I am concerned about children being subjected to television violence and encourage and applaud industry initiatives at self regulation. An early first step is the agreement among ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox to warn parents in television listings about those programs that are especially violent in nature.

Some in congress have proposed using existing technology to allow parents to program their own television sets or rely on some non-government source who shares their philosophical beliefs to prepare and provide a "chip" that would program the television to restrict shows labeled violent.

We must all work together for better programming for children. You are important participants in this process. Last June, a report sponsored by the National Association of Broadcasters found that:

  1. The amount of regularly scheduled educational and informational children's programming increased 81% from Fall 1990, the year before the Act took effect, to Fall 1993.

  2. The average station now airs over 3 1/2 hours of regularly scheduled educational and informational children's programming per week.

  3. Nearly 97% of all regularly scheduled educational and informational children's programming started after 6:00 AM and 80.6% started after 7:00 AM

Although I am encouraged by the progress that we have made, we must work with the industry -- and especially with advertisers -- to increase the availability of quality educational and informational programming for children.

Public Television has been a leader with such high quality programming as Sesame Street, Reading Rainbow and Ghostwriter.

Children's programming requires a very large initial monetary investment. "Ghostwriter", a program which stresses reading and writing, completed and distributed 42 programs in its first season. The total production cost reached $20 million (including the costs of outreach material and educational supplements.) "Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego?" costs $4.7 million even in its third season.

I am encouraged by creative solutions to the production and airing of quality children's programming. For example, Disney teamed up with a public television station in Seattle and with the National Science Foundation to produce "Bill Nye, the Science Guy." The program is aired in strip on public television during the week and again on the weekend on Commercial TV. This partnership brings an entertaining science program to more outlets and more viewers than would have been possible with either commercial or public television alone.

As another example, Fox Children's Television Network this fall initiated a total of three hours per week of "curriculum-based" educational programming for children. Meanwhile the NBC Network focuses on the teen audience with "Saved by the Bell," "California Dreams" and "Name Your Adventure." ABC continues with the "Afterschool Specials" series designed for children 12-16 and since implementation of the Act. CBS has offered "Beakman's World."

In addition, we at the Commission can see from the license renewal applications filed with us, that stations all over the country do engage in local efforts aimed at meeting their obligations to provide quality informational and educational programming for children.

However, we need your help in this process. To ensure local and national quality programming, you and your local community must get involved. That is why I am so pleased to be here, to applaud the dialogue you have begun between educators and the media.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. And of course, remember to let those cats out at night.