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 (referring to the 1990 Act of Congress), the E/I rules, or the Kid Vid rules.
All full-power and Class A low-power television stations are required to broadcast at least three hours (or more if they operate digital subchannels) of "core" 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 commercials which advertise products related to and/or feature characters or hosts from the program currently airing.
Early regulations were implemented by the FCC in 1991, as prescribed by the Children's Television Act. 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. However, the regulations were met with concerns over whether they violated television stations' rights to free speech, as well as reports finding that stations were having difficulties complying with the logging requirement, or were attempting to classify programs not explicitly intended as such, as containing educational elements. 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 have had a major impact on U.S. television; the syndication market was bolstered by demand for compliant programming, while the Saturday morning cartoon blocks traditionally aired by major networks began to increasingly focus on E/I programming. At the same time, Saturday morning blocks began to see declines due to various factors, including increased competition from cable channels (which were not subject to the mandate) and other distribution models for children's programming. By the 2010s, the Big Three networks and Fox had revamped their Saturday morning blocks to focus in factual programs aimed towards viewers aged 13-16 (which, additionally, excluded them from the restrictions on advertising load), 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.
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.
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, as well as programs they considered to primarily be promotional ploys for associated toylines (such as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and My Little Pony). 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 content.
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 morning news program. At the time, the big three networks focused the majority of their children's programming, including cartoons, on Saturday morning lineups, along with occasional "after school specials"—anthologies of made-for-TV movies focusing on youth-related issues, aired mainly during late-afternoon time slots. Captain Kangaroo had to compete not only with news-based morning shows such as Good Morning America and Today, but local and syndicated offerings also targeting children.
Fowler explained that "commercial broadcasters alone should decide what they shall broadcast, because they have the Constitutional right of free speech. 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 were not enough children's programming on television, it could mandate that commercial stations contribute funding to public stations. 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.
Captain Kangaroo creator and host Bob Keeshan criticized Fowler's opinion that mandating children's programming was a violation of broadcasters' First Amendment rights. He argued that children were "just too important to be left to the networks and their profit motives", and cited the recent New York v. Ferber decision, explaining 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, 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 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. It 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—such as The Flintstones, Hard Copy, G.I. Joe, 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 those "specifically designed" to meet the educational and informative needs of children 16 years old and younger, of at least 30 minutes in length. The FCC ordered that by September 1997, all commercial television stations must broadcast at least three hours of such 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 label 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 (such as PBS members) are also required to comply with the regulations, they are not subject to its monitoring and reporting rules.
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 during all children's educational programming, 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.
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, and providing the option for all of a station's E/I programming to air on a subchannel rather than the main signal.
Effects on programming
The syndication market capitalized on the E/I rules, with distributors such as Litton Entertainment benefiting on the resulting demand for children's educational programming. To save money, many television stations began to cut locally-produced children's programming in favor of those acquired from the syndication market.
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 improve the audience's ability to recall and recognize their main characters, such as close-up "money shots", in order to bolster recognition of the characters as a brand when merchandised.
Saturday morning blocks
In the wake of the 1997 regulations, the big three television networks began to retool their Saturday morning lineups in order to include more educational programming. CBS relaunched its weekend block with a focus on educational programs (initially with live-action 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), before re-launching it again the following year in partnership with Nelvana, with a focus on cartoons adapted from children's books. In 2000, following its acquisition by Viacom, CBS shifted to a block programmed by new sister Nickelodeon, with preschool programming from its Nick Jr. brand.
ABC, which had recently been acquired by Disney, introduced One Saturday Morning for the 1997-98 season, which featured a mix of Disney animated series, educational interstitial segments (including one featuring actor Robin Williams in character as the Genie from Aladdin), a flagship wraparound program (Disney's One Saturday Morning), and the new educational series Science Court. 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), and later on, CBS's Nick Jr. block, began to erode its audience. In 2002, the block was replaced by ABC Kids, which largely drew from the programming of Disney Channel.
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 youth-focused factual entertainment programming, and later education-oriented animated series (marking 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. The same year, CBS also introduced the female-skewing KOL Secret Slumber Party, in partnership with DIC Entertainment and America Online, due to CBS Corporation being spun-off from Nickelodeon owner Viacom. 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, as well as increasing competition from cable networks such as Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon, and later video on-demand services, made non-educational Saturday morning cartoons less viable for networks. In June 2014, The CW, which was the only major U.S. network to still program non-educational programming on Saturday morning, 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 the Pokémon anime on Kids' WB induced notable violations of the program-length commercial restrictions, due to the airing of commercials for products such as Eggo waffles, Fruit by the Foot, and the Nintendo e-Reader accessory for the Game Boy Advance, that contained Pokémon-related tie-ins. 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! that contained references to its trading card game as being among products sold.
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, while Fox entered into a similar arrangement with Steve Rotfeld Productions to produce the science and technology-based block Xploration Station.
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.
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.
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