Last week, the FCC proposed new children’s TV rules, giving broadcasters much greater flexibility in meeting their quota (three hours a week on average). But the new rules, like the old ones they will replace, will not make our kids smarter. They will only salve the consciences of policymakers who feel they need to do something for children by making broadcasters do something to show they are “paying” for their spectrum.
If every commercial TV station ceased to air educational and instructional programming for children and young teens, it would have little impact. In five years, kids would be just as smart or as dumb as are today.
I can make that statement because I know that no one can refute it and no one cares enough to do the research to determine if it is true or not.
Yet, Congress and the FCC are insisting that broadcasters continue to air E/I programming for children 16 and under to justify their use of the public TV spectrum. After all, stations generate hefty amounts north of $30 billion a year in revenue and hefty profits from their use.
This impulse to “charge” the broadcasters something for the spectrum runs deep in communications policy, mostly in Democratic and liberal circles.
Over the past 70 years, policymakers have imposed or tried to impose all sorts of public interest obligations on broadcasters as a way of getting compensation. The so-called kidvid rules are the last remaining ones of substance.
Last week, the FCC released a draft of an order that will relax the rules, giving broadcasters greater flexibility in meeting the mandates. After some last-minute lobbying and tweaking of the draft, the FCC is expected to adopt the new rules on July 10.
The vote will culminate a big push begun early last year by Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly and reward Chairman Ajit Pai with another deregulatory star for his resume.
Boiled down, today’s rules require stations to air three hours of regularly scheduled “core” E/I programming each week (156 hours a year), not only on their primary channels, but also on each of their multicast channels. To count, such programming must comprise long-form shows (at least 30-minutes long) and air between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Under the proposed new rules, stations will still have to air 156 hours of E/I programming a year, but they will have some flexibility in its scheduling, in the length of programs and in their placement.
Under the new rules, stations will have to air only 104 hours of the 156 hours as long-form programming (at least 26 hours per quarter) on a regular weekly schedule as they do now.
They will be allowed to air the remaining hours (up to 52) at odd times or on a regular non-weekly schedule (monthly, for instance). Or, they may broadcast the 52 hours as short-form programming, including public service announcements and interstitials.
In addition, the new rules allow stations to shift up to 52 hours (13 hours per quarter) of regularly scheduled weekly programming — and only regularly scheduled weekly programming — from the primary channel to one or more of their multicast channels.
The new rules also expand the window when the programming can be aired. It now opens at 6 a.m. rather than 7 a.m.
And, finally, the new rules excuse multicast channels from any children’s programming obligations, although as I just said they may carry up to a third (52 hours) of the primary channel’s burden.
At first glance, the new rules may not seem like much. Stations still have to air 156 hours a year of children’s E/I programming just as they do now.
But by allowing stations to slough off 52 hours of the programming into the multicast nether regions, the FCC is effectively cutting their obligations to just 104 hours a year — two hours a week. Since stations are really only concerned about the scheduling and quality of the programming on their primary channels, it’s a huge win for them.
So, if the FCC votes on these new rules on July 10, a fair headline would be: “FCC Slashes Stations’ Weekly Kidvid Quota from Three to Two Hours.”
One of the stations’ chief problems with the children’s mandates is that they interfere with other programming they want to air on Saturday and Sunday mornings — live sports, news, public affairs and coverage of local events.
Live sports in the big one. Weekend football games on the East Coast air as early as 9 a.m. on the West Coast.
Giving stations the ability to schedule up to a third of the E/I programming at odds times and on a non-weekly basis should give stations the flexibility they need to avoid conflicts between programming that makes bureaucrats happy and programming that makes viewers happy (and makes money).
Allowing stations to meet their obligations with interstitials, PSAs and other short-form programming for the standard 30-minute show is also nice, but meaningful only if stations are interested in offering such fare. I’m not sure they are.
The NAB didn’t get all it wanted in this proceeding, but it got enough to count it a win.
The lobby would have liked to have shifted all children’s obligations to multicast channels or even to other channels in the market, perhaps the local PBS station, which already teems with great children’s programming.
But despite its Republican control, the FCC wasn’t going to let the broadcasters off that easy. There is a lot of interest in this proceeding from Hill Democrats, especially from Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey, one of the progenitors of the original rules. So, I figure that Pai saw the proceeding as a good opportunity for a little bipartisanship infused with the spirit of compromise. He still gets that star, of course.
And the NAB isn’t complaining. After seeing the draft, NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton described the proposal as “common-sense reform.”
“While NAB believes the record supports even further relief from KidVid rules,” he said, “we appreciate the flexibility these revised rules will provide to broadcasters to better serve children, parents and our local communities.”
To squawk too loudly in a proceeding that purports to help kids would be unseemly. The NAB has much bigger issues, not the at least of which is to ensure that cable and satellite interests don’t undercut broadcasters’ retransmission consent rights. They played this one just right.
Should the rules be adopted as drafted, my guess is that most stations will simply cut back to two hours on their primary channels by shifting one hour to a multicast channel, start the shows an hour earlier if need be and hunt for a couple more informercial advertisers.
That sounds a bit cynical, I know.
But this whole exercise is cynical or simply pointless.
With no evidence that the rules do much good, with the knowledge that there is a mountain of high-quality children’s educational and instructional programming available via noncommercial broadcasting, cable and the streaming options, Washington policymakers persist in telling broadcasters they must shovel a little bit more on the mountain.
They say it’s necessary so that broadcasters can justify their existence. In fact, it’s to justify their own.
Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or here.