Regulations on children's television programming in the United States
The broadcast of children's programming by terrestrial television stations in the United States is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), under regulations colloquially referred to as the Children's Television Act (CTA), the E/I rules, or the Kid Vid rules. Since 1997, all full-power and Class A low-power television stations have been required to broadcast at least three hours (or more if they operate digital subchannels) per-week of programs that are specifically designed to meet the educational and informative (E/I) needs of children aged 16 and younger. There are also regulations on advertising in broadcast and cable television programming targeting children 12 and younger, including limits on ad time, and prohibitions on advertising of products related to the program currently airing.
Early regulations on educational programming were implemented by the FCC in 1991, as ordered by the Children's Television Act—an Act of Congress passed in 1990. They included a requirement for television stations to document their broadcasting of programs which "[further] the positive development of children 16 years of age and under in any respect, including the child's intellectual/cognitive or social/emotional needs", and a requirement for the FCC to use this as a factor in license renewals. Stricter regulations were implemented in 1997, requiring all stations to broadcast at least 3 hours of programming per-week that is designed to educate and inform viewers aged 16 and younger, and introducing requirements regarding on-air identification of these programs, and more stringent reporting requirements.
The E/I regulations had a major impact on U.S. television; the syndication market was bolstered by demand for compliant educational programming, while the Saturday morning cartoon blocks traditionally aired by major networks began to increase their focus on educational children's programming. They were one of several factors that contributed to the decline of networked Saturday morning blocks, alongside the growth of cable channels (such as Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon) and other platforms serving youth demographics—which were not subject to the rule. By the 2010s, the Big Three networks and Fox had revamped their Saturday morning blocks to focus on factual programs aimed towards teens (which also excludes them from the restrictions on advertising load in children's programming), with the majority having leased the airtime to the distributor Litton Entertainment. In 2014, The CW discontinued the last networked Saturday-morning block to still feature non-educational programming, in favor of another Litton-run block.
The educational programming regulations have faced mixed reception. There have historically been concerns over whether these mandates constitute a violation of broadcasters' rights to free speech. The FCC's initial regulations faced criticism for being too broad in its definition of children's educational programming, with stations attempting to various classify non-educational programs as containing educational elements. The regulations have been described by current FCC commissioner Michael O'Rielly as "onerous" and outdated due to the cable and new media platforms that have emerged since their introduction.
Concern over the impact that television had on children began when television was still a new entertainment medium. During the 1950s, many individuals, particularly parents, asked their legislators to do something about the potential effects of television viewing on young people. Academic research was initiated since this time to monitor, analyze and explain the relationships between television and children, although the impact of television on academic performance continues to be debated in scholarly research. The first attempt to address these concerns were during Congressional hearings in 1952 that addressed violence. Besides Congress, there were government commissions that also pursued this agenda. Included in these discussions were the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Federal Trade Commission, and advocacy groups formed by concerned citizens. The FCC intended to change a number of policies regarding children's programming.
Research demonstrated that young children had difficulty distinguishing between the program they were watching, and commercials broadcast during them. Most children had little or no understanding of the persuasive intent of commercials, and as such, were highly vulnerable to claims and appeals by advertisers. Advertisers, especially those related to junk food, were interested in youth as consumers because of their spending power through their parents, their influence, and their brand awareness as adult consumers in the future.
As a result, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, in accordance with then-current regulations set by the Federal Communications Commission that required a distinction between programs and commercials, most children's programming bumpers would include the phrase "We'll be [right] back after these messages" (or variations of it), except for the bumper before the final commercial break, which would usually say, "And now, these messages" (or variations of this phrase). The FCC significantly relaxed these rules in 1984, although to this day there are still broadcast networks that still air these bumpers, particularly during programming that airs Sunday nights at 7 PM/6 PM Central that is not a news or information program such as 60 Minutes. In such cases, certain shows or theatrical films that would normally air during 8-11 PM Prime Time would be presented in re-edited kid-friendly versions to conform to the requirements of the 7/6 PM CT time slot.
The lobbying group Action for Children's Television (ACT), which was founded by activist Peggy Charren, actively campaigned for higher-quality children's programming to be broadcast by television stations. The group was critical of the lack of educational programming on television—believing that it was part of broadcasters' obligations to serve the public interest, and also acknowledging programs they felt were meant solely as a promotional tool for associated toylines (such as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and My Little Pony) rather than legitimate entertainment. The cancellations of ABC's Animals, Animals, Animals and CBS's children's newsmagazine 30 Minutes, were cited by ACT as examples of the major networks' decreasing commitment to educational programming.
In 1982, the Reagan administration's FCC chairman Mark S. Fowler lamented upon CBS's decision to move its long-running children's series Captain Kangaroo, from its historic weekday morning timeslot, to weekends, in order to air an expanded CBS Morning News. At the time, the big three networks scheduled the majority of their children's programming, including cartoons, during Saturday morning lineups, along with occasional late-afternoon "after school specials"—anthologies of made-for-TV movies focusing on issues affecting youth. Captain Kangaroo had to compete not only with news-based morning shows such as Good Morning America and Today (which CBS sought to compete with), but local and syndicated offerings also targeting children.
Fowler was against mandating the broadcast of educational programming by commercial stations, arguing that it was within their First Amendment rights to choose the programming they wish to broadcast, and adding that "it's too bad Captain Kangaroo is gone, but the Government should not be issuing directives about what should be on the air." Fowler suggested that, if the FCC felt there was not enough children's programming on television, it could mandate that commercial stations contribute funding to support the production of educational children's programming by public broadcasters. The idea was criticized by NBC's vice president as being a "tax" on commercial broadcasting, while ABC argued that commercial television (including networks and their affiliates) was doing a better job at serving children than public broadcasters.
On the other hand, Captain Kangaroo creator and host Bob Keeshan disagreed, arguing that children were "just too important to be left to the networks and their profit motives." Citing the recent New York v. Ferber decision, he told The New York Times that "despite the guarantee of free speech, our children are so precious that the free speech of the [child] pornographer had to give way to allow us to protect children from exploitation."
Children's Television Act
|Other short titles||Children’s Television Act of 1990|
|Long title||An act to require the Federal Communications Commission to reinstate restrictions on advertising during children's television, to enforce the obligation of broadcasters to meet the educational and informational needs of the child audience, and for other purposes.|
|Enacted by||the 101st United States Congress|
|Public law||Pub.L. 101–437|
No serious action took place until the 1990 enactment of the Children's Television Act (CTA), an Act of Congress which ordered the FCC to implement regulations surrounding programming that serves the "educational and informational" (E/I) needs of children, as well as the amount of advertising broadcast during television programs aimed towards children. This included that a station's commitment to airing and supporting educational children's programming had to become a factor in license renewals, and that limits had to be imposed on the amount of advertising that can be aired during television programs targeting children. The CTA also called for the Secretary of Education to establish a National Endowment to help support the production of educational children's programming.
The FCC met its statutory obligations by introducing new regulations effective October 1, 1991. Television stations and cable providers would be required to maintain and publish summaries of the children's educational programming that they broadcast, defined as "programming that furthers the positive development of children 16 years of age and under in any respect, including the child's intellectual/cognitive or social/emotional needs".
As ordered, commercial time during children's programming was limited to 12 minutes per half-hour on weekdays and 10.5 on weekends, and advertising during children's programs for products associated with the program currently airing ("program-length commercials") or containing "program talent or other identifiable program characteristics" (host-selling) were also banned. The rule was intended to prevent children's programs that were tie-ins with toy franchises (such as, for example, G.I. Joe) from airing ads for the toys themselves during their associated programs. Broadcasters were also encouraged to establish a clear separation between program and advertising content on-air during children's programming, so that younger viewers are able to distinguish between them.
The CTA was passed despite objections by the Bush administration, who believed that requiring the broadcast of educational programming by all television stations was a violation of their rights to free speech. The restriction on "program-length commercials" was also considered to be too narrow; critics (such as Charren) had demanded that it apply to any program targeted towards children that was primarily designed to promote products associated with them, rather than only applying if advertising for said products were broadcast during the program.
The 1990 regulations were considered to be ineffective; many stations failed to keep the required records or had any method for accurate recording. More than 25% of television stations in the U.S. failed to record the time, date, or length of programming considered to be educational in content. The FCC did little to regulate these logs up until 1993, but later on, came up with certain rules and regulations such as the safe harbor provision in order to regulate content for younger audiences. Due to the weak definition used (and in particular, the allowance for programs meeting social and emotional needs to possibly be considered educational), many stations attempted to interpret programs not specifically-designed to be educational—such as The Flintstones, G.I. Joe, Hard Copy, The Jetsons, and Leave It to Beaver—as containing discussion of social and moral issues that made them "educational".
In 1995, FCC commissioner Reed Hundt began campaigning for stricter children's educational programming regulations, arguing that broadcasters were not displaying a sufficient commitment to the 1990 regulations. His proposal included that stations be required to air a minimum of three hours of children's educational programming per-week. Jeff Bingaman issued a letter of support for the proposal, signed by 24 Democratic senators and 1 Republican.
Fox Kids president Margaret Loesch denied Hundt's arguments that broadcasters were not following the rules, stating that most Fox affiliates aired an average of four hours of children's educational programming per-week (which already exceeded the proposed minimum). Edward O. Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, accused Hundt of being "obsessed" with the proposed quota. In regards to reports that Hundt was struggling to receive FCC majority support for the proposal and was repeatedly "stalling" a final vote, Fritts stated that Hundt was that "acting like a regulatory referee wanting to push the game into overtime even though the final score is lopsided.", and that he "made up his mind long ago that broadcasters were to be castigated on children’s TV, without reservation, and despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary." 
Following a push for support from Congress and the Clinton administration, the FCC adopted the Children's Programming Report and Order in August 1996. The new regulations were intended to provide clearer regulatory obligations for television stations, and promote public awareness of educational programming offered by television stations. The order and regulations defined "core educational programming" as regularly-scheduled programs, of at least 30 minutes in length, that are "specifically designed" to meet the educational and informative needs of children 16 years old and younger. The FCC ordered that by September 1997, all commercial television stations must broadcast at least three hours of core educational programming per-week, regularly scheduled between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. Beginning January 2, 1997, television stations were required to use an "E/I" label to promote these programs on-air and in programming information supplied to TV listings providers.
Commercial stations are also required to compile, publish, and publicize a quarterly Children's Television Programming Report in their public file, detailing the children's educational programming aired during the past quarter, what programs it plans to air during the next, and providing a point of contact for viewer inquiries about the educational programs aired by a station. As they are not under the jurisdiction of the FCC, this regulation does not apply to cable channels. While Non-commercial educational stations are also required to comply with the regulations, they are not subject to its monitoring and reporting rules; PBS member stations typically devote the majority of their daytime schedule to children's educational programming from the PBS Kids lineup.
In September 2004, the FCC announced revisions to the regulations to account for the then-upcoming digital television transition. An additional half-hour of E/I programming must be broadcast for every increment of 28 hours of additional free video programming the station offers via digital subchannels. The regulations also stipulate that an "E/I" logo must be displayed on-screen throughout such a program, that a regularly-scheduled E/I program may only be rescheduled 10% of the time, and that if rescheduled or moved to a different multicast channel, the station must announce the new scheduling on-air. The FCC also introduced new rules regarding promotion of websites during children's programming aimed at viewers 12 and younger on broadcast and cable channels; they may only be for pages that do not contain any commercial or e-commerce content, must offer "a substantial amount of bona fide program-related or other noncommercial content", and that pages containing imagery of characters from the program must be "sufficiently separated" from commercial areas of the site.
The implementation of the advertising rules were deferred from February 2005 to January 2006, following concerns by broadcasters over the amount of time given to become compliant. Disney, NBC Universal, and Viacom issued a joint filing to the FCC in September 2005 to urge against the "far-reaching, burdensome and expensive" advertising rules, with Disney also suing over the regulations as being a violation of freedom of speech. On December 16, 2005, the FCC chose to delay the new regulation to March 6, 2006, in order to allow time for further discussion. They were ultimately implemented in September.
Current FCC commissioner Michael O'Rielly has considered the educational programming regulations to be outdated. Citing the wider variety of platforms available (including cable networks and digital platforms), he stated that "with today's dynamic media marketplace there are very little, if any, additional benefits provided by the Kid Vid rules". O'Rielly also argued that the "onerous" nature of the regulations were also making stations reluctant to air other, more viable programs on Saturday mornings, such as newscasts and sports. In July 2018, the FCC issued proposals regarding changes to the rules, including removing the requirement that a program must be regularly scheduled and at least 30 minutes in length, providing the option for all of a station's E/I programming to air on a subchannel rather than the main signal, allowing stations to sponsor "non-broadcast" initiatives in lieu of airing educational programming, and replacing the quarterly report with an annual report. O'Rielly felt that the 30-minute minimum length "killed off shorter, high-quality programs that were once popular and educational", and does not reflect current viewing habits.
Effects on programming
Following the implementation of the regulations, many television stations began to cut locally-produced children's programs due to budgetary concerns, and largely replaced them with educational programs acquired from the syndication market. Studios such as Litton Entertainment benefited from the resulting demand.
The Annenberg Foundation found that the number of network television shows deemed to be "highly educational" from 1990 to 1998 fell from 43% to 29%. A research report from Georgetown University said that one issue contributing to this was that what constituted "educational television" programming was defined too broadly, as programming that was only academic or that covered pro-social issues, for example, counted towards station requirements. Another issue was that traditional ideas of what should be taught to children, such as the alphabet or number systems, were lost. There was also a reported increase in the amount of programs focusing on social issues. Writers for these programs wrote stories that often were not academically sound for young viewers, because they were not trained in writing for this audience. One show that was an exception to this rule is The Magic School Bus, as it combined effective writing and educational content for children.
Networks picked up series more often when they were related to a well-known pop culture icon, or could be marketable as toys. Owing to the success of PBS's Barney & Friends from both a critical and commercial standpoint, Disney and Nickelodeon saw a greater interest in making preschool programming that was more engaging and had educational value to its target audience. However, they also leveraged techniques designed to bolster the programs as a brand when merchandised, such as close-up "money shots" of key characters designed to encourage recognition of them by viewers.
Saturday morning blocks
In the wake of the stricter regulations, the big three television networks began to retool their Saturday morning lineups for the 1997-98 television season in order to include more educational programming.
ABC, which had recently been acquired by Disney, introduced One Saturday Morning for the 1997-98 season. It featured a mix of Disney animated series, educational interstitial segments (including a history-oriented segment starring comedian Robin Williams, reprising his role as the Genie from Aladdin), the new educational series Science Court, and a flagship wraparound program (Disney's One Saturday Morning). ABC stated that four of the block's five hours would branded as E/I programming. One Saturday Morning quickly became the top Saturday morning block in terms of viewership, until competition from Fox Kids and Kids' WB (credited to the respective popularity of Digimon and Pokémon) began to erode its audience. In 2002, the block was replaced by ABC Kids, which drew from the programming of Disney's cable networks Disney Channel, ABC Family (which Disney had recently acquired from Fox), and Toon Disney.
CBS relaunched its Saturday morning block for the 1997-98 season as Think CBS Kids, with a focus on live-action educational series such as The New Ghostwriter Mysteries, The Weird Al Show, and Wheel 2000—a children's version of the game show Wheel of Fortune. CBS relaunched the block again the following season as the CBS Kidshow, with a focus on cartoons that were adapted from children's books, and produced by Canadian animation studio Nelvana. In 2000, following the network's acquisition by Viacom, CBS replaced Kidshow with a block programmed by its new corporate sister Nickelodeon; the block initially focused exclusively on preschool programming from the Nick Jr. brand, but from 2002 to 2004, the block targeted a broader youth audience. In 2006, after CBS and Viacom split back into separate companies, CBS partnered with DIC Entertainment to launch KOL Secret Slumber Party (in conjunction with AOL's children's vertical KOL). The block was re-branded as KEWLopolis the following season as part of a new sponsorship with American Greetings, and Cookie Jar TV in 2009 following the acquisition of DIC by Cookie Jar Group.
NBC had removed cartoons from its Saturday morning lineup in 1992 in favor of TNBC, which featured live-action sitcoms aimed towards a teen audience. After declining ratings, TNBC was replaced in 2001 with Discovery Kids on NBC, which was programmed by the cable channel Discovery Kids and featured factual entertainment programming and educational cartoons (including the first animated programs aired by NBC's Saturday morning lineup since the TNBC era). In September 2006, it was replaced by Qubo, a joint venture with Ion Media Networks, Nelvana owner Corus Entertainment, Scholastic and Classic Media that was focused on educational programming. Following Comcast's purchase of NBC Universal, the network pulled out of Qubo and replaced with it with the preschool-targeted NBC Kids in 2012, which was programmed by new sister network Sprout.
The growing regulatory scrutiny, increasing competition from cable channels such as Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon (which benefited from synergy and cross-promotion with The WB, ABC, and CBS's children's blocks respectively), as well as video on-demand services, made non-educational Saturday morning programming less viable for networks. In June 2014, The CW, whose Vortexx block (programmed by Saban Brands) made it the last major U.S. network to still program non-educational programming on weekend mornings, announced that it would replace it with an E/I-centric block for the next television season.
In 2007, Univision agreed to a record $24 million fine for violations of the educational programming regulations across 24 of its stations, after falsely asserting that several youth-targeted telenovelas (such as Cómplices Al Rescate) were educational in nature.
Airings of anime on Kids' WB induced notable violations of the program-length commercial restrictions. The network aired several commercials during the Pokémon anime for products with Pokémon-related tie-ins (such as Eggo waffles, Fruit by the Foot, and the Nintendo e-Reader accessory for the Game Boy Advance). The FCC fined individual affiliates of The WB and upheld the fines on appeal (despite WCIU-TV trying to defend itself by arguing that the references were "fleeting"), even though it was the network which transmitted the content. In 2010, KSKN in Spokane, Washington was similarly fined $70,000 for having, on multiple occasions, aired an advertisement for a local collectibles shop during Yu-Gi-Oh!, which contained references to its eponymous trading card game as among products sold there.
Shift in demographics and content
In the early 2010's, broadcasters began to change the manner in which they addressed their E/I obligations, shifting to blocks of factual, documentary- and reality-style series aimed at a teen (13-16 years old) audience, in lieu of conventional children's programs (such as cartoons). Throughout the decade, ABC (Litton's Weekend Adventure), CBS (CBS Dream Team), The CW (One Magnificent Morning), and NBC (The More You Know) all leased their weekend morning blocks to Litton Entertainment to air such programming. After dropping 4Kids TV in 2008 (which by then, had only scheduled a single half-hour of E/I programming within) in favor of programming a national block of infomercials under the internal title "Weekend Marketplace"), Fox entered into a similar arrangement with Steve Rotfeld Productions to produce the STEM-based block Xploration Station, which premiered in September 2014.
As they are only applied to programs targeting viewers 12 and younger, these programs are not subject to the advertising restrictions prescribed by the Children's Television Act. Litton faced criticism from Peggy Charren's daughter Claudia Moquin, for including product placement from "underwriters" in some of its programs (such as Electronic Arts, Norwegian Cruise Line, and SeaWorld), which, when combined with the lack of restrictions on commercial time, were described as a contravention of the spirit of the CTA. Litton defended its practices, stating that its programming was designed to meet "child psychologist-developed standards that did not exist prior to 1990", and considered them to be a preferential alternative to airing ads for junk food and toys instead.
PBS member stations have been an exception to this trend, as they continue to air conventional, educational children's programming under the blanket branding PBS Kids. Member stations may also offer a full-time PBS Kids channel as a digital subchannel service.
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- Dorothy G. Singer & Jerome L. Singer, eds. Handbook of Children and the Media, 2nd edn. NY-London: SAGE, 2012.
- Dale Kunkel & Brian L. Wilcox, “Children and Media Policy: Historical Perspectives and Current Practices”, ch. 28, pp. 569–93.
- Karen Hill-Scott, “Television Broadcaster Practices: Compliance with the Children's Television Act”, ch. 29, pp. 595–613.