FCC Commissioner Targets Children’s Programming Rules

FCC logoFCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly added a post to the official FCC Blog last Friday to support the view that “the Commission needs to reconsider the ineffective and burdensome requirements currently imposed on our nation’s broadcasters to air a certain amount of educational and informational (E/I) children’s programming on a weekly basis”. In short, he’s going after the three hours a week of E/I shows that over-the-air TV stations are required to broadcast.

Since O’Rielly is one of the commissioners who voted against Net Neutrality, my knee-jerk reaction is that he has only corporate interests at heart and anything he backs must be bad for viewers. But it turns out that O’Reilly makes some good points.

Well, maybe just one good point. O’Reilly noted that each E/I show must currently run for a half hour or longer. He correctly points out that shorter times can lead to better lesson retention and implies that shorter programs could be scheduled with better flexibility. I don’t see that four 15-minute E/I shows would be worse than two half-hours.

I thought that another good point was on its way when he suggested that the current requirements focus too much on the quantity of programming. I thought he might pivot to a way to improve E/I quality, because some of it today is cheap trash. For one show, I puzzled over its disjointed narrative and emphasis on theme parks until I realized that it was made with 100% publicity footage. An hour of Schoolhouse Rock! would be much better than three hours of stock video. But he didn’t go there.

Another good point that I thought he was going to make would have been after he pointed out that the requirement had been expanded in 2004 to include multicast TV channels, which I’ve been calling diginets. I might have nodded my head if O’Reilly had said that the E/I mandate might only apply to the primary channel, or if he had suggested it might be reapportioned between a channel’s diginets. But he didn’t go there either.

Instead, O’Reilly pointed to PBS,  the internet, and pay-TV networks in saying: “Great Children’s Programming Exists Elsewhere”. (There was also a tortured argument that most locals couldn’t possibly find a free half-hour every weekday, so it gets dumped in a three-hour block on Saturday mornings, and that could preempt sports on the west coast sometimes.) I’ll spare you the inventory of children’s programming available through these alternatives and jump to the conclusion: “The question that must be asked is where is the market failure to warrant the continuation of the FCC’s Kid Vid mandates?”

No, that’s not the question. The children’s educational TV requirement is supposed to be a part of a station’s service to the public, whose airwaves provide the commercial broadcaster with the means to a handsome profit. It’s not supposed to be an educational lifeline for the suburban kid with 300 cable channels and unlimited internet access. It’s there to serve the single, working mom who can’t afford pay TV. It’s the scintilla of good in a shopping channel’s schedule. It’s the legacy of broadcasters working to improve the life of every viewer.

Market-based regulations are an oxymoron. Government regulations should balance the benefits to the public with the need to ensure that commercial TV stations remain healthy and prosperous. Nobody’s turning off the lights just because of their E/I obligations.