Column: The broadcast TV networks want to dumb down kids’ programming — and the FCC might let them do it

Robert Hutchins, the great University of Chicago sage of education, remarked nearly 60 years ago that television, “one of the greatest technical marvels in history,” had been so degraded that “it is as though movable type had been devoted exclusively since Gutenberg’s time to the publication of comic books.”

Apart from PBS’ offerings and a few other shows, there’s not much of educational broadcast children’s TV that might have changed his mind. In exchange for the free use of the public airwaves, networks that make billions of dollars from that largesse must make a fairly piddling commitment to a minimum of three hours of educational programs for kids a week, limits on advertising on kids’ shows and the like. Now the Federal Communications Commission has proposed dumping even those negligible requirements because, it asks, who needs them in the internet age? It’s taking public comments on this until late September.

Dale Kunkel is an emeritus professor and longtime expert on children’s television who has testified on Capitol Hill about children and media. He teases out why the FCC would look out for broadcasters’ interests, rather than those of children being left on the far side of the digital divide.

What is the FCC considering doing, and why is it looking doing at this?

The FCC has required that television stations air children’s educational programming for a very long time. The reason why they require that is that the airwaves belong to the public, not the broadcast station that uses them. The broadcaster is granted a license. They get the license for free. But the payback is that they are supposed to serve the public interest. And one of the key elements of that is that they have to provide programming for children. That’s been around for 50 years or more.

The FCC is now proposing to deregulate those requirements. They can’t abandon them entirely, because Congress adopted a piece of legislation back in 1990 called the Children's Television Act, that says every station has to air children’s educational programming. But the FCC gets to determine or define what qualifies as educational.

In their terminology, they call [deregulation] “providing greater flexibility.” But in fact it’s really “deregulate and reduce the educational programming that reaches kids on the TV airwaves.”

The argument is that there are so many options now. Kids have iPads, kids have iPhones. There are programs on cable that were not even imagined when the public airwaves were given to broadcasters in the first place.

That’s absolutely true, but it’s not a good argument to deregulate these rules. The reason why is, it assumes that everyone can afford the cost of accessing all of those alternative forms of kids’ media. And that’s really not the case.

Many rural households, many in lower-income households, have to rely solely on broadcast television. I just looked up the number and it’s in the high 20s — 28 million households in the U.S.

So the needs of those children to see and benefit from educational programming can only be met by broadcast media.

And that comes right back to this key argument, this bedrock argument about why broadcasters should be required to air children’s programming — that is, they’re using the publicly owned airwaves for free.

You need to think about the broadcast airwaves in sort of the same way that you might think about the national parks. The national parks belong to the public. It might be the case that the National Park Service lets a concessionaire build a lodge in Yosemite or put up a snack stand so people can have picnic lunches and so forth before they use the park, but they don’t own the park. The public does. So of course we can place burdens and requirements on businesses that are working on public property.

The broadcasters are exactly the same. They’re essentially getting a corporate giveaway from the government. We can’t give the airwaves away for free and get nothing back for the public. That doesn’t make sense.

We’re not just talking about Big Bird and public broadcasting. This is all of the major networks, the broadcast networks.

Public broadcast stations do a wonderful job of airing educational programming for children.

I did a study a few years back looking at what is being aired on commercial television for kids and they only air about as much which the requirements specified — three hours a week of educational shows. If we loosen those mandates, if the government says we’ll let stations decide how much is enough, then the fear is it is just going to go away entirely.

Here are some of the other deregulatory ideas that the FCC has just proposed: Currently the law requires that they have to air between 7 a.m. and the early evening hours. They want to say they could air at any time. That would mean that broadcasters might put them on at three in the morning when no one is watching.

They want to say that they could air programs not on the station’s primary signal. Every station today in the digital environment multicasts. Stations have a primary signal that cable networks retransmit. So if you’re a cable subscriber and you’re watching a local broadcast station, you can see their primary signal but you don’t typically see their secondary signals that they air.

Is this like a poor-relations channel?

Yes, it’s kind of a poor stepchild, would be the term. These are the signals that have 24-hour news, kind of a news crawl, weather displays, stock tickers, things like that. And the only way you can receive those is if you have rabbit ears, and you connect those up to your television, and there’s virtually no audience for them.

So these are a couple of the ideas that the FCC has that absolutely give the broadcasters greater flexibility. But unfortunately what they do is they’re going to adversely affect how well children are served.

Three hours a week sounds like a paltry output. It sounds like they’re already pretty much at all quid and no quo.

Traditionally, children watched about three hours a day or 21 hours a week of television programming. Those numbers have changed as kids have evolved to spend more time online. But that doesn’t mean that kids don’t still love watching television, especially in their early years. And the programs they gravitate to are the programs that are really designed for them.

You worked on the Children’s Television Act of 1990. What kind of pushback were the networks giving in terms of what they considered children’s programming, and what the FCC and Congress wanted as children’s programming?

I did a study just a couple of years after the law was enacted to see what stations were airing to comply with the law. What I found was that stations simply weren’t taking the law seriously. There were claims that “The Jetsons” was educational because it taught kids about new technology. “The Flintstones” taught history lessons. And one of my favorites was a claim that the Yogi Bear show was educational; it said that it taught children not to do stupid things or be ready to face the consequences. It just showed that the industry wasn’t taking the law seriously. And so that led the FCC to tighten down on the rules. The FCC had said: We’re going to trust the good-faith judgment of the broadcast industry. We don’t want to be in the business of judging what’s educational and what not.

Well, that clearly didn’t work. That led to a number of regulations that said that a program had to have a specified learning goal and it had to have a particular target audience, and age range. That was so that people could hold the industry accountable, so that they at least would have to make realistic claims, not specious claims.

The same argument the FCC is considering now was put forward more than 30 years ago about cassette recorders.

You can make the same argument today that there are alternative technologies; that was made all the way back in the 1980s when this law was first being considered by Congress. The FCC actually had deregulated a bunch of kids’ television requirements in the 1980s under the Reagan administration, just as they were deregulating a lot of industries — the airline industry, for example.

They said: Well. there’s Betamax tapes and satellite TV and so forth, and so we’re going to deregulate. But Congress explicitly rejected that. The people at the FCC who are proposing these changes today, they don’t seem to me that they’ve really done their homework in terms of understanding their history.

In a congressional hearing where we were reviewing the FCC regulation back in the ’80s, I testified that what the FCC had done was something I called the Disneyland rule. It was as if the city of Anaheim was going to close down all of their public parks, arguing we don’t really need public parks anymore because Disneyland is available.

That doesn’t make any sense. It’s great that Disneyland’s there, it’s great that some families can afford to go. Not all of them can. It doesn’t negate the need for public parks.

And it’s really a parallel situation with broadcasting. It’s great that there is a lot of educational content out there, and that affluent families can access it through these alternative mechanisms that require direct payment. But not everyone can. And we need to serve the needs of all in our society. And when we’re giving the broadcast airwaves away for free, we need to get something back. Educational programming for kids is the bedrock of serving the public interest. It always has been.

But I’ll tell you what's even more discouraging I see in the proposal today. The proposal today is: We’re not even going to maintain the pretense that we have regulatory requirements here. We’re going to ... give the broadcast industry greater flexibility. I don’t think they’ve earned that privilege.

I guess it was back in the 1930s when public airwaves were acknowledged to be public. What was the philosophy then that justified essentially giving away these public airwaves, now worth billions and billions and billions of dollars?

It was a lack of foresight. And it was clarity that the government in the United States was not going to operate the airwaves. In many more authoritarian countries, the government actually does control the media. The government owns and controls it, and controls the content and basically it’s a lot of propaganda. In the United States, with our 1st Amendment and our philosophy of free speech, and no government control of speech, it was clear that the government wasn’t going to operate the airwaves.

And when broadcasting was new, this model of giving the airwaves away for free was that then the payback is that the industry — the people who get the licenses — have to serve the public interest.

That was created at a time when no one could see that the use of these frequencies would grow into these billion-dollar assets.

So it’s kind of an historical artifact that the station licenses continue to be given away for free today, now, when they are worth billions. And the real irony is not only are they given away for free, but they can be bought and sold. The owner of a broadcast license can transfer it to someone and receive payment of billions of dollars. And that happens regularly.

And the government gets none of that?

You have to scratch your head that that's not the regulatory reform that Congress and the FCC are looking at in this area! That would be the reform that is needed. And imagine if you did that. Imagine what you could do with those revenues.

What we would be the consequences of embracing this rule the FCC is considering now?

If the FCC goes through with their deregulatory proposal, as I suspect they will, I think what happens is that children’s programming on broadcast television essentially goes to nil. It’s going to be invisible. The content that’s on won’t be regularly scheduled. It will no longer be required to be a full-length program.

These are the “improvements” that the FCC is clearly heading toward. And they’re only improvements if you’re a broadcaster or a regulator who loves broadcasters. They’re not an improvement in the way in which children will be served.

You’ve worked your entire career on issues like this. How are you feeling as you look at what the FCC proposes?

It’s pretty sobering, I have to tell you. I’ve had a number of victories over the years working with Congress and at times the FCC in accomplishing some regulation that really is beneficial to kids. It’s very sobering, almost depressing, to see all of that fall by the wayside.

The new documentary about Mister Rogers is devoted to his service in informing children, teaching children, guiding children. I wonder what Mister Rogers — who testified before Congress about the need for good children’s programming — what he would make of all of this?

He wasn't much of a scold, but I just don’t see that any other approach would be appropriate. If a child would misbehave, the child has to be held accountable. This is clearly misbehavior on the part of the FCC. And it clearly deserves scolding. And I’m sure it would be gentle, and poignant, but I’m confident that’s what he would deliver.

Patt Morrison’s new book is “Don’t Stop the Presses! Truth, Justice and the American newspaper.”

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