Sometimes, too much of the time, good intentions--difficult to nurture under the best of circumstances in Hollywood--wither in a climate of cynicism and preoccupation with the bottom line.
Such has been the case with efforts to compel broadcasters to provide more ennobling TV programming for children--a clear case of the government and industry using each other to their mutual advantage, with little evidence the goals children's advocates had in mind were even remotely met.
Rather, networks are turning to other programmers to fulfill commitments spelled out under the Children's Television Act--skirting the spirit, if not the letter, of a law they would just as soon see eliminated and one that, for all the good it's doing, might as well be.
Last week saw NBC agreeing to lease its Saturday morning real estate to cable's Discovery Networks, which will shoulder NBC's burden of baby-sitting kids during those hours. Fox is considering a similar arrangement, having already announced plans to bail out on weekday afternoon children's fare. Fox affiliates have been champing at the bit to fill those time slots with programs that have the potential to generate more advertising revenue--in short, the usual assortment of court, talk and dating shows that fill daytime. CBS, meanwhile, handed its Saturday morning lineup over to sister cable channel Nickelodeon.
None of this comes as a major surprise to Peggy Charren, the Boston grandmother who began lobbying for better children's programming more than three decades ago.
Charren, now 73, is no advocate of censorship or economic pressure tactics to bring broadcasters to heel. Still, she has always argued persuasively that the airwaves belong to the public, which has a right to demand a little compensation from broadcasters in return. "They should serve the public interest," she said. "If they're not going to do that, it's my spectrum, and I want it back."
A little history is in order. In 1996, broadcasters reluctantly agreed to Federal Communications Commission rules calling upon them to offer three hours a week of educational or informational programming as a condition of their broadcast licenses. Though critics suggested that the terms "educational" and "informational" were too vague, advocates noted the goal was not to teach curricula but ensure there was some programming for kids infused with loftier values than what action figures to buy at Toys R Us.
The deal theoretically gave teeth to the Children's Television Act, passed in 1990, which mandated that television stations set aside a few hours to enrich children in exchange for the valuable free broadcast spectrum the government grants them.
Of course, broadcasters really weren't any more enthusiastic than sweet-craving kids about TV becoming a sort of video classroom. The primary reason the industry acquiesced was that several companies were seeking FCC approval for major mergers and signed on hoping to grease those wheels with goodwill.
At the same time, President Clinton was looking for a "family values" issue as he ran for reelection against Bob Dole, who had accused the entertainment industry of tainting the culture with "nightmares of depravity." And really, who could argue with asking media conglomerates to help improve the lot of kids?
Since then, however, a souring economy--and particularly hard times for top toy makers that market to children--has made kids' programming less attractive financially. Combine that with new, business-friendly FCC Chairman Michael Powell, and even lip service to such ideals as broadcasting being a public trust has evaporated.
Instead, Charren rightfully contends that broadcasters, with the government's cooperation, "have sort of figured out how to make the Children's Television Act absolutely meaningless." In particular she laments the dearth of great programming for children--including news, drama and an educational menu that doesn't taste like it--which probably peaked decades ago, with the "ABC Afterschool Specials" and "Schoolhouse Rock."
"There's clearly no hope left for getting terrific stuff [for kids] on commercial broadcast television, and I've thought that for a long time," she said.
Granted, there is terrific stuff to be found elsewhere, from videos to cable, where Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network and the Disney Channel have become destinations for children, offering the kind of glossy productions that once might have run on the major networks. To cite one example, Cartoon Network recently premiered "Justice League," a lavishly produced animated series featuring DC Comics characters such as Superman, Batman and Green Lantern. While probably as alluring to adults as to kids, the series demonstrates the level of commitment cable channels are bringing to original production.
Mike Lazzo, Cartoon Network's senior vice president of programming and production, suggests that the major networks failed to make children's programs a priority, then acted mystified as to why their efforts didn't work.
"They killed themselves, in essence, over the years with mediocre programming and not much passion for the shows," Lazzo said. "I think they just gave up."
Charren's goal now is to ensure public television at least has the funding necessary to deliver high-quality children's programs, given that a fifth of U.S. homes with television--or roughly 20 million households--don't subscribe to cable or own a dish. Among the solutions proposed in the past, in fact, was simply allowing broadcasters to underwrite the cost of children's programs on PBS--an idea whose time may have come.
"There's still a sizable number of kids, particularly poor kids, who need good television more than rich kids, who have other options," Charren said. "You have to focus on keeping the alternative systems viable. It's very important that public broadcasting manage to survive in a healthy, meaningful way.... To say that cable does it is not fair."
Charren asserts part of the problem is that broadcasters no longer fear reprisals from the FCC--a point echoed by former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, who held that post when the industry made its pledge regarding children's programming five years ago.
"The bottom line here is if you want quality programming for kids, then the chairman of the FCC has to do some jawboning," Hundt said. "If you're quiet, they feel like they can get away with anything. Basically, Chairman Powell told the broadcasters when he came in that they can do whatever they want, and they're doing it."
Powell has taken exception to charges the media frontier has become the Wild West under his oversight, but his unequivocal support for a hands-off regulatory environment--especially in regard to content--has come through loud and clear.
The networks, for their part, maintain they are still serving children through these new arrangements. Yet NBC acknowledged last week that the network would have exited the children's business entirely by now were it not for the FCC guidelines and would just as soon see the requirement go away.
Such a halfhearted approach is destined to fall short, as the Cartoon Network's Lazzo suggested, pointing out that any form of programming requires a commitment of resources and degree of trial and error to succeed--to stumble across the next "Powerpuff Girls" or "SpongeBob Squarepants" that will capture kids' imagination and maybe inspire them to think a little bit, even if they don't realize it.
Lacking that, the so-called educational and informational programming TV stations schedule won't be seen widely enough to educate or inform much of anyone, making its failure a self-fulfilling prophecy and the need for a new, less cynical approach inevitable.
"Kids are like anybody," Lazzo said. "They know [junk] when they see it."
And however broadcasters describe their attempts to comply with the Children's Television Act, we know (junk) when we hear it.
Brian Lowry's column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.