The Federal Communications Commission acted in July to weaken the rules governing children's educational and informational programming.
Sure, the FCC, in its July 10 press release, uses the terms "updated," "relieves unnecessary burdens" and "provides broadcasters greater scheduling flexibility," but savvy readers can read between the lines.
Each broadcast station is required to show three hours of children's educational and informational programming each week. But by tinkering with the regulations, the FCC indeed relieves burdens from broadcasters and places it on the shoulders of children themselves, not to mention their parents.
One change allows stations to start showing this programming -- called E/I for short, and viewers should be able to see a logo with that abbreviation on the screen when such a show in being aired -- as early at 6 a.m. How many kids do you know who wake up that early on Saturday to watch TV?
This is a favor to West Coast stations that have been yelping for decades that the typical Saturday morning children's broadcast window runs head-on into college football and basketball. Guess which format brings in the most ad money? The 3-2 vote also widened the programming formats allowed to preempt children's programming.
Another change will permit a station to shift 13 hours per quarter -- essentially, an hour per week -- of E/I programming to one of its "multicast" channels. Thanks to digital technology, the broadcast signal can be split into as many as six channels without loss of picture or sound quality.
But cable systems, in most of the U.S., are not obligated to carry the multicast channels; some of those are Buzzr, Me TV, Charge!, Comet, TBD, Laff, Bounce, Get-TV, Grit, Movies!., Heroes & Icons and Justice. Your satellite dish may be able to pick up many of these channels, but they'd only show the national feed, not what a local channel preempts.
A third change will allow up to 52 hours a year -- again, an hour each week -- of children's programming to run less than 30 minutes in length, and to not be regularly scheduled.
While there's nothing wrong with a two- or three-minute segment showing something beneficial to young audiences, the FCC tweak makes it harder for parents to know when it's going to appear so that their kids will be in front of the tube to watch it.
One of the more egregious examples of "unscheduled" programming was the NBC sitcom "In the House," which starred LL Cool J and ran 1995-99. The series had made 76 episodes, but not all of them had aired. But there was a contract clause allowing "In the House" to be sold into syndication up network airing of 76 episodes. NBC didn't want to waste valuable prime-time acreage airing a show that had no future on the network. So it instead showed them overnight -- after "Tonight," and "Late Night" -- without any notice or promotion so the series could rake in the syndication bucks.
"Promoting the public good and serving kids should not fall by the wayside for the sake of increased business revenue," said a statement from Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, after the FCC vote.
"The changes are a big step backwards for children," said a statement from Tim Winter, head of the Parents Television Council.
"Companies granted the privilege of using the public airwaves have a duty to provide content which will educate and inform children," Josh Golin, head of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, told Broadcasting & Cable magazine, an industry journal. "With the FCC's help, they now have license to shirk that responsibility."
Of course, that's not all the FCC has up its sleeve. The same day it approved the loosened rules, it also issued a "further notice of proposed rulemaking," bureaucratese for "we're going to do this again."
This time, according to the FCC's press release, it is looking for comments on a proposed rule by which "broadcasters could satisfy their children's programming obligations by relying, in part, on efforts to sponsor children's programming aired on other in-market stations."
What does that mean? Suppose you have a company that owns two stations in your city; this is known as a duopoly. One sign of a duopoly is the appearance of one station's logo on the other station, or a newscast on the smaller station featuring the bigger station's news team.
What the FCC would like to implement is foisting off some of one station's E/I obligation on another station it already owns. Rather than each station being required to air three hours of E/I material, the smaller station would air four, or maybe even five hours each week, while the bigger station -- with the bigger ratings -- obligated to show just one or two hours, giving it more time to air infomercials or other, more lucrative shows.