The Children’s Television Act 1990-2010

Picture of children watching television courtesy of Heartfelt

Photograph of Mr. Rogers Courtesy of Thoth

The Children’s Television Act (CTA) was passed by Congress in 1990 with the goal of providing educational programming to children that “furthers the positive development of the child in any respect, including the child’s cognitive/intellectual or emotional/social needs 1.”  

In return for providing such educational programming, broadcast stations were given free access to public airwaves.  The Act also required that commercials be limited to 10 minutes an hour on weekends and 12.5 minutes an hour on weekdays. It was hoped that major networks would promote educational/academic shows similar to Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.  

However, broadcasters reported shows of questionable educational value as their E/I choices.  For example,  The Jetsons was a show promoted as educational because it dealt with the futue and The Flintstones because it dealt with history.  Although the show GI Joe had violent content, it was hearalded by broadcasters as having pro-social themes.  Leave it to Beaver  was also descibed as educational by networks because it had pro-social messages.

In 1991, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) required the clear separation of commercials  and television show host sales from children’s programming, since children have a difficult time distinguishing commercial content from the educational content of a show.

In 1996, broadcasters were required to provide a minimum of three hours per week of educational and informational shows targeted to children under the age of 16 during their prime viewing hours of 7 AM to 10 PM.  Since that time, most major broadcasters, other than PBS and Nickelodean have limited their educational children’s programming to just three hours per week. Most shows have pro-social themes that promote self-esteem and altruism rather than academic/educational themes.

In 2004, the FCC delineated educational programming requirements as television transitioned from analog to digital.  Broadcasters, who can have up to six channels of programming in digital instead of one channel in analog, were required to provide the commensurate  amount of children’s educational/informational programming on each of the channels.

In 2005, the FCC required that educational/informational children’s shows had to show the “E/I” label on the television screen the entire length of the show.

The Commission, in 2006, restricted the display of internet websites that contain commercial matter during children’s programming.

In 2007, the FCC entered into a consent decree with Univision to resolve petitions by children’s and media organizations to deny the broadcaster’s license renewal applications.  It was alleged that Univision’s children’s programming did not comply with the educational requirements of the Children’s Television Act.   Univision voluntarily paid $24 million and developed a children’s educational programming initiative.

Children Now, a non-partisan children’s media research and advocacy organization, evaluated educational shows broadcast by the four major networks from 1997-2008 (2).  Findings included a significant decrease in the number of shows found to be “high quality” and an increase in “moderate quality” shows during this time period. 

In 2007-2008, only 13 % of programming described by networks as educational and informational were determined to have high quality measure.   Health and nutrition messages, especially those that addressed childhood obesity prevention, were “extremely rare.”

The report concluded that current television programming does not meet the original intentions of the Children’s Television Act.  Eight shows were found to contain highly educational content by Children Now:

Sesame Street (PBS)

Beakman’s World (Commercial)

Between the Lions (PBS)

3-2-1 Penguins (Commercial)

Cyberchase (PBS)

The Suite Life of Zack and Cody (Commercial)

Fetch! with Ruff Ruffman (PBS)

Teen Kids News (Commercial)

On July 22, 2009, Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation  Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., convened a hearing called “Rethinking the Children’s Television Act for a Digital Media Age.”   The Senator said he planned to introduce legislation to regulate children’s media content, citing his “grave concerns about violence and indecency in the media.”

Since 1990, there has developed an array of new screen media available to children–multichannel television such as cable and satellite TV, video games, video programming on mobile phones, interactive video, videos viewed on internet sites such as YouTube and Hulu, texting with pictures attached, digital multicasting of four to five streams of programming, and the potential for interactive programming made possible by the conversion of broadcasters from analog to digital.

At the Senate Commerce Committee hearing in July of 2009, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski spoke about the new landscape of video broadcasting and television.  He recommended empowering parents with tools and information to determine the appropriate video content for their children and teenagers rather than government regulation of video content. 

At the same hearing, James P. Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, a non-partisan, not-for profit organization that advocates for educational children’s media content, said there were ways to regulate children’s media content without limiting broadcasters rights to free speech. 

A full report from the committee is expected to be released at the end of August 2009.

1. “Policies and Rules Concerning Children’s Television Programming Memorandum Opinion and Order,” Federal Communications Commission Record 6,(1991): p.2114.

2.  Executive Summary: Educationally/Insufficient?  An Analysis of the Availability & Educational Quality of Children’s E/I Programming.  Children Now.

Last Updated May 10, 2010 by Dr. Vee

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