JESSELL AT LARGE

FCC Kidvid Reform Is Chance To Find Better Way

Everyone agrees that the media marketplace has changed in the 20 years since the FCC adopted it children’s television rules. There has to be a way to acknowledge that cable, the internet and smartphones take some of the burden off broadcasters. But broadcasters have to offer up some new, innovative proposals. It’s the right thing.

That was a bit over the top.

Unhappy that the FCC majority went ahead yesterday with a rulemaking to revamp the children’s TV rules, lone Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel voted against the proceeding and called the move a “cruel disregard for children.”

And somehow or other, she tied it in with the Trump’s administration immoral policy of separating parents from their children when they appear at our border as refugees. Such a conflation trivializes her own argument as well as the Trump policy.

She also played the Mommy card. Because she’s the only mother on the FCC at the moment, she suggested, she knows best.

Sen. Ed Markey, the Daddy of the Children’s Television Act of 1990 (or one of them) on which the FCC rules are based, was more reasoned, saying only that he was “deeply disappointed.”

Promulgated during the Democratic FCC regime of Reed Hundt in 1996, the rules, in essence, require stations to regularly air three hours of educational children’s programming each week in half-hour blocks during times when children are up and about. In 2004, the FCC extended this rule to each and every multicast channel.

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Technically, stations can substitute PSAs and short-form programming for the half-hour shows, but these options are ill-defined. For the most part, broadcasters have stuck to the certainty and simplicity that comes with just airing the three hours. That insures that no questions are raised at renewal or station transfer times.

Led by Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, the Republican majority calls for a fresh look at the all the requirements in the rulemaking.

Among other things, its asks whether the three hours each week still makes sense and proposes eliminating the requirement that that the programming be presented as half-hour shows.

It also invites ideas on what stations can do to meet their obligation other than broadcasting programming.

Underlying the rulemaking is the recognition that the TV universe has radically changed over the past 22 years with the explosion of cable, the arrival of the internet and the ubiquity of smartphones, and that there is scant evidence that the current regs are effective in making our kids smarter.

Even Markey and Rosenworcel acknowledgded the rules are outdated. “I understand the need to modernize our rules,” Rosenworcel said. “As a mother, I see how beneficial it is to have so many places to turn to for quality content online.”

And neither has made much effort to defend the rules as now written.

Rather than a rulemaking that will lead directly to the adoption of rules, they urged the FCC to proceed with a notice of inquiry, an interim step during which the FCC could, as Markey put it, “develop a complete understanding of how these changes will affect children, particularly millions of children from low-income and rural communities.”

O’Rielly had the right answer for them. “In this case, switching from an NPRM [rulemaking] to an NOI is nothing more than Washington speak for injecting unnecessary delay and distraction. We can and will obtain the same data in an NPRM that we could in any NOI.”

Given the vote count at the FCC these days, Rosenworcel should have abandoned her insistence on an NOI and done what she could to keep the rulemaking as open-ended and as devoid of tentative conclusions as possible.

O’Rielly said he was willing to accept some watering down of the rulemaking to accommodate Rosenworcel. But as her no vote attests, she opted to stick with the party line and publicly fume instead.

Rosenworcel’s stubborn resistance is unfortunate because there is an opportunity here for a win-win — a way to relieve broadcasters of pointless regulatory obligations and at the same time help children learn something about the world.

There is nothing magic in the three hours a week. I have seen no evidence they are doing much good. If such evidence exists, now is the time to show it. Perhaps Litton Entertainment, which produces and distributes much of the educational children’s programming, can make a case for it. It has the most to lose.

Broadcasters need more flexibility. Sure, the FCC can continue with the three-hour blocks as one option, but it should allow stations to do other things with equal confidence they won’t run afoul of the rules.

So, the challenge is to come up with some new ideas.

O’Rielly had a few. Without the weekly requirement, he said, broadcasters could once again air occasional afternoon specials as ABC and CBS once did and, without the insistence that shows be at least a half hour, they could pack lessons into interstitial programming.

O’Reilly said the half-hour requirement inadvertently “killed off” one of the most effective children’s educational programs ever, ABC’s venerable Schoolhouse Rock! simply because the series’ segments were not long enough.

Starting in 1973, the three-minute musical cartoons drilled viewers of all ages in grammar, arithmetic, science and civics. I remember them well, and I will swear I didn’t watch much TV in the 1970s.

A year ago, communications attorney Jack Goodman made the same point about Schoolhouse in an article he wrote for us. He noted that news outlets at the time were using the “I’m a Bill” segment to help folks understand the twisted course that health care reform legislation would have to navigate.

O’Rielly also suggested that broadcasters should be able to earn children’s educational credit through “non-broadcast” means like funding the efforts of other stations in their markets, particularly noncommercial ones for which children’s programming is an integral part of their mission.

I can see how broadcasters might balk at sending checks to their local PBS outlets, but perhaps they would make their studios available on weekends to children’s programmers if they knew they would get points for it at the FCC.

In this day when kids are as likely to be enthralled by their smartphones as by their TV screens, shouldn’t broadcasters also be able to explore meeting at least part of their children’s obligation with websites, apps and OTT channels?

One thing I would like to see go — no questions asked — is the requirement that broadcasters air a three-hour block on each of its multicast channel. This is an example of taking a dubious regulation and multiplying it.

O’Rielly made the point that his rulemaking is “the beginning of the process, not the end.” He clearly wants his rulemaking to be a place where new ideas can be proposed and considered. He wants smart regulation.

Broadcasters must answer this call. Instead of using the rulemaking simply to do less, they should come up with ways to do better.

It’s the right thing to do.

And if that is not enough motivation for broadcasters to seek out the win-win, they should consider this: In 30 short months, I think that there is a better than even chance that Trump is out as president and Roseworcel is in as FCC chairman.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or here. You can read earlier columns here.


Comments (26)

Leave a Reply

Phil Meyer says:

July 13, 2018 at 6:17 pm

Unfortunately, commercial broadcasters have mostly looked for opportunities to do less in the area of children’s programming. Policymakers and FCC Commissioners should also keep in mind the digital divide. While a lot of children’s programming (and distribution) have shifted to cable nets and the internet, we must remember that somewhere around 20% of the population don’t have cable/satellite and/or internet service. These households skew towards families with young children who will benefit most from educational children’s programming. Public TV could use an additional revenue stream — parents stopped contributing to PBS stations long ago — why not provide incentives for partnerships like the Sesame Street/HBO/PBS deal?

RIDGELINE-TV says:

July 13, 2018 at 9:14 pm

Offering a few hours of kids programming as opposed to much of the garbage on “broadcast” TV? Not much of a “burden” if you consider the practically free use of public airwaves.

Megatron81 says:

July 14, 2018 at 9:18 pm

This will pave the wave for cartoons returning to broadcast TV on Saturday Morning which to me would be good for Kid Vid rules which are outdated and need reforming that don’t need to be E/I & nature shows other than a few people watch anyways. Sinclair is the only broadcaster that airs cartoons mainly on The CW & MYNet TV Stations along with some Fox stations that don’t air news in the morning Kids Click which This TV also airs 7 days a week I can see the rule affects the block as only ads are Chucky ‘E’ Cheeses & the value ads along with kids toys you have ordered by phone or website no cereal or Happy Meal during the Kids Click block. So Sinclair did a good thing by getting back into kids cartoons they should offer it to other station groups that have The CW or MYNet TV stations across the country just my opinion.

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