New federal rules take effect for children's television
Sep. 01, 1997
NEW YORK (AP) _ In producing episodes of the popular ``Doug'' cartoon over the past few years, Jim Jinkins had one central worry: Will children laugh?
Now his scripts must pass muster with a team of Harvard educators who have another concern: Will children learn?
New federal rules taking effect today require television broadcasters to air at least three hours a week of educational shows for children. The rules already have forced some changes, but haven't ended the debate over nutritional programming for young minds.
Several new features designed to fulfill the mandate debut this week, like the Norman Lear-produced cartoon ``Umptee-3 TV'' on the WB, ``The Sports Illustrated for Kids Show'' on CBS and an ABC cartoon about a 12-year-old named Pepper Ann.
Yet many existing programs will simply return to the schedule, newly defined as ``educational.''
``For us, this was just business as usual,'' said Maureen Smith, in charge of children's programming at Fox. ``We will continue to pick shows that will not only educate but entertain.''
In preparation for the time requirement, broadcasters have been required since January to use icons to designate shows they consider educational or informational.
Cable networks are exempt from the rule, even though Nickelodeon is now the top-rated network of any kind among children ages 2 to 11, and the majority of children's programming is on cable.
Educational programs are loosely defined by the Federal Communications Commission as material that serves the intellectual, cognitive, social and emotional needs of children aged 16 and under.
Television executives appreciate the freedom allowed by that definition, but it also leaves them vulnerable to charges they're not taking the mandate seriously.
Fitting under this wide umbrella are shows ranging from CBS's ``Beakman's World,'' in which a scientist responds to questions from children, to NBC's ``Saved By the Bell: The New Class,'' a drama involving teen-agers such as Ryan, who mopes when his girlfriend moves away.
Ryan is supposed to learn about the futility of lashing out in anger when rejected. Other ``Saved'' episodes will feature a girl who sees her life unravel when she begins smoking marijuana and a girl who gets jealous when her older sister is honored at a homecoming dance.
Peggy Charren, an activist who pushed the FCC to adopt the rules, said many producers are falling back on shows that offer lessons in life in order to avoid real attempts to educate.
``How can you get excited about `Saved By the Bell' as an educational program?'' she asked.
It's distressing, she said, that CBS's revival of its one-minute ``In the News'' segments is the only real attempt to encourage children to learn about current events.
Ideally, television programmers should offer children the same range of choices they would find in a library, she said.
Some in the industry believe academic lessons are needed to make a show educational. But television needs to entertain as well as enlighten, said Robin Schwartz, who's in charge of children's programming for NBC.
``I don't think teen-agers will sit down to watch a teacher,'' she said. ``They do that all week. If I put on a show that no teen-ager wants to watch and it's educational, what's the point?''
Most of the networks have hired educational consultants to review scripts. The process adds a day to the production time of most shows, Schwartz said.
Jinkins, who also is producing ``101 Dalmations'' for ABC, admitted to trepidation at facing a panel of experts.
``It scares you to death,'' he said. ``You think you're going to have some academics who don't understand what you're doing or have no sense of humor.''
Most of the changes they've ordered are to make underlying messages more explicit, he said. For instance, he was told to change a ``Dalmations'' episode in which a character takes care of a baby chick to emphasize how important it is to watch someone younger.
The mandate meant many changes at CBS, where children's programming was cut from five to three hours and all had to fit the educational bill.
CBS ditched escapist fare like ``Ace Ventura, Pet Detective.'' A children's version of ``Wheel of Fortune'' was massaged so viewers learn lessons about the puzzles that are solved; if the answer in George Washington, for instance, the show will give a short profile of the first president.
NBC is continuing to appeal to teen-age audiences. ABC revamped its schedule to offer more variety, although executive Jonathan Barzilay said the market, not the FCC, dictated the changes. UPN doesn't offer a full slate of educational programming, so its affiliates must meet the requirement on their own.
All the networks believe they are following the rules, but the rules' subjective nature keeps television executives awake at night.
``The big question for all of us, no matter what side of the table we're on, is who is going to judge this?'' asked Lucy Johnson, in charge of CBS's children's programming. ``Who is the jury?''
Despite her criticism, Charren said the schedule of children's programming is more interesting than she's seen in years.
``If next year is better than this, then (the new regulation) is working,'' she said. ``If it's not, then it is a waste of time.''