The Sun (Baltimore)

July 3, 1994, Sunday, FINAL EDITION


LENGTH: 920 words

HEADLINE: Don't Like Children's TV? So Use the Off Switch!


If someone proposed to solve the problem of children smoking cigarettes by
forcing tobacco companies to create new low-nicotine brands especially for
children, that person would be ridiculed even in Washington. Yet, if someone
proposes to solve the problem of children going brain-dead from watching too
much television by dictating federal standards for children's TV, that
person is hailed as a social savior.
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As the Federal Communications Commission prepares to impose onerous
burdens on the nation's broadcasters and cable companies, a re-examination
of the Children's Television Act is long overdue.

In 1968, Congress created public broadcasting networks in part to provide
educational programming for children and teen-agers. In 1990, Congress
decided that commercial television stations and networks did not provide
enough healthy fare for youngsters and enacted the Children's Television Act
to force them to do more.

Though the act threatened license revocations for violators, the law did
not define "educational and informational programming." The New York Times
noted that the Children's Television Act is "notoriously vague." Congress
and the FCC told television stations to jump through the hoops -- but did
not tell the broadcasters where the hoops were, how high they were, or in
which direction they had to jump.

The Children's Television Act decreed that television programs for kids
could not have more than 12 minutes of commercials per hour on weekdays or
more than 10.5 minutes of commercials per hour on weekends. The restrictions
on ad times may have been enacted partly to protect the dignity of elected
representatives. Sen. Jim Exon, a Nebraska Democrat, complained to his
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colleagues: "On more than one occasion, my grandchildren, under 4 years of
age, have stood up and asked for silence in the room when the station went
to a commercial."

WTTA of St. Petersburg, Fla., was fined $ 10,000 for exceeding the
official limits for advertisements by 2 minutes in one hour and by 1
minutes in another. The FCC delayed renewing the licenses of six television
stations last year because the stations had not proved they were providing
sufficient broadcast nutrients for children.

It is ironic to read the threatening language of notices from Edythe Wise,
chief of the Complaints and Investigations branch of the FCC's Mass Media
Bureau's Enforcement Division. In January 1993, chief enforcer Wise informed
WTBS (the Turner Broadcasting System Superstation) that it was guilty of 15
seconds too many commercials on a Jan. 14, 1992, broadcast of "Tom and
Jerry's Funhouse."

Ms. Wise also pronounced KWGN-TV of Denver guilty of one minute's worth of
excessive commercials during broadcasts of "Dennis the Menace" and "Merrie
Melodies" between 7 and 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 1992. KITV-TV in
Honolulu was pronounced guilty of excessive commercials on a broadcast of
the "Bugs & Tweety" show.
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The conclusion of most such notices warns: "We hereby ADMONISH you for
said violation of our commercial limits. . . . This matter will be made a
part of our permanent records."

Should it really be a federal crime if some youngster sees a few seconds
less of "Bugs & Tweety"? With the somber air of the FCC notices, one would
think that the show "Bugs & Tweety" was some type of religious revelation
that broadcasters had a sacred duty to show uncut.

The Children's Television Act makes a mockery of the First Amendment. If
Congress and the FCC have a right to dictate that television stations meet
certain quotas for children's viewing, then there is no reason why quotas
for shows for the elderly, various racial and ethnic groups, and other
groups could not also be imposed. If Congress dictated that every book
publisher must begin printing and distributing at least 10 children's books
each year, this would be widely denounced as oppressive. Yet political power
grabs over television provoke surprisingly little controversy.

There are no compulsory attendance laws requiring people to watch
television. The basic premise of the law is that children's television is so
bad that Congress must intervene. But the restriction on commercials implies
that the problem is not the dismal quality of the shows but the fact that
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children do not see enough of the shows.

Television has numerous adverse physiological effects on children; studies
have shown that excessive television watching by children sharply increases
their risk of obesity and high cholesterol. Insofar as federal regulation
seeks to make television more attractive to children (by fewer commercials,
for instance), federal intervention can harm children's health.

The FCC held hearings Tuesday to consider proposals to force TV stations
to broadcast educational programming for children one hour a day and to
impose more stringent definitions of FCC-approved children's programming.
But the mute button on television remote controls -- and extensive
competition among many channels -- is a much better regulator of excessive
ads and shabby shows than is the FCC.

If government really wants educational television, perhaps it should
simply require every television station to run flashing test patterns
declaring, "Go read a book!"

James Bovard is the author of "Lost Rights: The Destruction of American
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