Common-Sense Reforms for Children’s TV

More than 20 years ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC or Commission) created rules that require over-the-air TV broadcasters – and only over-the-air TV broadcasters – to air a specific amount of children’s educational programming, at specific times, in specific formats and in specific ways. The FCC’s rules implemented the Children’s Television Act of 1990, which was passed into law before the advent of the internet as well as the hundreds of cable and satellite channels that exist today. But while the world around the FCC’s highly prescriptive rules has dramatically changed, the agency didn’t seem to notice.

Thankfully, this FCC – following the lead of Commissioner Mike O’Rielly – decided it was finally time for the agency to open its eyes and take a peek.

The result is that the Commission is bearing witness to what everyone else plainly already sees. More to the point, what every kid sees. Namely, that children today have infinitely more options to engage with interactive video content, on myriad platforms and at times of their choosing. Children don’t have to make an “appointment” for their favorite programs; they are available around the clock. Kids can also turn to a variety of sources. Indeed, with the explosion of cable and satellite programming, we’ve seen the development of entire channels dedicated to content for kids. And now with the internet, kids have access to all kinds of new programming – including from over-the-air broadcasters – in ways no one even imagined in 1990.

Given the unassailable fact that the children’s TV world has changed, the FCC has an obligation to examine its rules in light of those changes. The need for a closer look is especially ripe, because the government’s rules single out over-the-air broadcasters; they act as if broadcast TV is the only way kids are exposed to age-appropriate programming. The FCC’s rules don’t apply to cable programming. They don’t apply to satellite programming. And they don’t apply to the internet (surprise, surprise).

None of this is to suggest that the FCC should jettison its responsibilities under the Children’s Television Act. It’s merely time – past time, actually – for the Commission to recognize that the world around those rules is very different than the one when they were written in the 1990s. Given the explosion of kids’ content in the marketplace, it is also unnecessary and unduly burdensome (and likely unconstitutional) for the federal government to require that broadcasters air children’s programming on each digital program stream. In addition, the FCC could incentivize better children’s programming were it to count short-form or special block programming towards monthly, quarterly or annual targets.

Some groups have asserted that the Commission does not have enough data to propose new, more flexible rules. These claims are misguided. The FCC has a wealth of data on the state of the video marketplace. Beyond that, one can simply hit the power switch on his or her TV, computer, tablet or smartphone. The evidence is all on the screen. Today’s kids – from any background – have access to an unprecedented level of educational and informational programming.

Rather than turning a blind eye to all of the incredible innovations in children’s programming, we should all get down to the business of figuring out what rules still make sense in light of the dramatic changes in the relevant marketplace over the past two decades. It’s a process the agency should take seriously. Leaving rules in place that govern a bygone age is evidence of a government that is abdicating – not pursuing – the responsibilities to which the American public has entrusted it. We are pleased the FCC has taken an important step in the right direction.