Big Bird has moved to HBO and kids can get their fill of shows aimed at them 24 hours a day on cable’s Nickelodeon or internet sites such as YouTube Kids.
So is it still fair to force TV broadcasters, as part of their public service obligation, to put on three hours of children’s programming in blocks of at least 30 minutes every week?
The broadcasters don’t think so and are backing a proposal before the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to reexamine the decades-old requirements for educational programming. The agency voted 3-1 on Thursday to consider letting broadcasters shift the shows onto little-watched secondary digital channels, and asked about shedding the three-hour minimum altogether.
Supporters say the changes acknowledge that children are increasingly shunning TV and turning to online and cable programming.
“I view this as an opportunity to reflect the current marketplace,” said Michael O’Rielly, a Republican commissioner who drew up the proposals. “There has been an explosion in the past many years in children’s programming with many different platforms offering services.”
Not so fast, say some lawmakers and children’s advocates.
“This rulemaking all but announces where we are headed — a future with less quality children’s programming that is also harder for families to locate and watch,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, the sole Democrat on the Republican-majority commission, moments before she dissented.
The FCC set the current rules for serving children in 1996, implementing the Children’s Television Act that Congress passed in 1990 to ensure that viewers ages 16 and younger would be served by broadcasters.
O’Rielly, in a January blog post, cited programming on cable channels such as Disney Junior and Nickelodeon as well as online outlets Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. An agreement reached in 2015 between the nonprofit Sesame Workshop and premium cable channel HBO for programs featuring Big Bird and Elmo promises more new content each season, O’Rielly wrote.
Episodes of “Sesame Street” are broadcast on Public Broadcasting Service stations nine months after they first appear on HBO.
The FCC, without offering a conclusion, asks about whether to retain the three-hour requirement in its 66-paragraph proposal passed with Thursday’s vote. It calls for eliminating requirements that educational programs be regularly scheduled, and at least 30 minutes long. Changes won’t occur before a second vote that hasn’t been scheduled.
About 11% of American households with television, or around 12.4 million homes, relied solely on over-the-air broadcast as of November 2015, according to FCC figures.