OPINION: Regulating Children’s TV Programming Doesn’t Make Sense


Liam Sigaud Writer for the American Consumer Institute
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Federal rules governing children’s television programming have outlived their usefulness.

In 1990, Congress passed the Children’s Television Act, mandating that TV broadcasters devote some of their programming to educational content for children. Even stricter requirements were implemented in 1997, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) continues to enforce these so-called “kid-vid” rules to this day.

These rules were adopted with the best of intentions, but they’ve become outdated and ineffective as digital media has revolutionized the way children learn.

Applying 20th-century regulations to the realities of the 21st century’s technological landscape simply doesn’t make sense. Given the plethora of video services available to parents, the market for educational content is stronger and more diverse than ever.

Today, parents have a nearly unlimited supply of low-cost (often free), high-quality content at their disposal to educate and entertain their children.

Youngsters can access countless hours of educational programming on channels like Discovery, National Geographic, Animal Planet, the History Channel and the Smithsonian Channel. Over-the-top providers are flourishing; services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu offer a host original and previously-aired children’s shows.

Accessing on-demand, non-broadcast children’s content is easier than ever. In 2015, 94 percent of children had a computer in the home, and the vast majority had internet access. Last year, a national survey revealed that 98 percent of households with children had a smartphone or tablet. At the same time, studies show that children are spending less and less time watching broadcast TV.

In fact, during the last TV season, fewer than 90 children watched educational and informational programming via broadcast antenna on the average NBC and CBS station. Not 9,000. Not 900. Just 90 children. About 95 percent of people watching children’s programming mandated by “kid-vid” rules on NBC and CBS stations were actually adults, and about two-thirds were over age 55.

This is merely the latest manifestation of a long-term trend. Over the last 30 years, Saturday morning viewership by children of the four major networks in the U.S. has declined by more than 90 percent. Last year, an average of barely 1 in 200 children ages 2-11 watched Saturday morning programming on the four major networks combined.

Not only are audiences dwindling, but the rigidity “kid-vid” rules hampers innovation in bringing educational materials to children. For example, the FCC mandates that kids’ shows be at least 30 minutes long and regularly scheduled to satisfy “kid-vid” requirements.

As a result, broadcasters are discouraged from airing short TED talk-style videos or animated skits like Schoolhouse Rock that capitalize on children’s attention spans. Station managers also have a disincentive to air popular children’s specials.

Airing required children’s programming squeezes local stations’ schedules so tightly that some broadcasters in some areas have eliminated local newscasts in order to make time to satisfy “kid-vid” rules.

When bureaucratic mandates drive programming decisions instead of audience preferences, viewership declines, advertising revenues drop, and stations have fewer resources to invest in creating quality content.

The emergence of digital platforms has transformed the way children absorb educational material and has rendered “kid-vid” rules obsolete. Keeping them in place merely ties the hands of television stations struggling to retain their audience and serve local communities with the programming viewers want to watch.

The FCC will soon release an order revising these “kid-vid” regulations, and consumers should welcome these efforts to make rules less rigid and more adaptable to the shifting media landscape.

Liam Sigaud works on economic policy and research for the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit educational and research organization.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.