Accountability Watch: Educational TV

Caitlin Johnson
July 12, 1999

Television plays a large role in kids' lives. By the time most American children begin the first grade, they will have spent the equivalent of three school years in front of the television set, according to Federal Communications Commission data. FCC studies have also shown that quality educational TV can help kids learn. But are stations following federal mandates to improve kids' TV diet?

The Children's Television Act of 1990 defined educational or informational (E/I) programming as that which "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." The "Three-hour Rule," added in 1997, requires networks to schedule at least three hours per week of E/I programming when children are most likely to be watching.

The second annual report by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) indicates that they may not be doing enough.

First, the good news. The study found that the number of shows aimed at children has increased. Program content has also improved since 1998, when nearly half of all children's programming contained no enriching content; this year, that the number is down to one-quarter. Shows carrying the E/I label are also less violent than other children's programming.

Still, one in five of the "educational shows" fails to meet the standards for E/I programming. Networks are submitting shows like Rugrats (Telemundo) or the animated NBA Inside Stuff (NBC) to fulfill the E/I requirements.? Further, the study found that information about E/I programs remains hard for parents to find, and understand. Programs and TV guides may include an E/I icon, but only one in seven parents, according to the study, knew what "educational" programming entailed.??

Finally, the studies found a dramatic decrease in local programming, in part because networks are packaging the shows for their affiliates in order to meet the three-hour rule. In a study of 1,200 local broadcast stations, APPC found that only 65 locally produced shows were aired. Local programming can bring children together with the issues facing their communities, and can sometimes address the needs of children in a way that nationally produced shows may not, using dominant languages or local customs to deliver messages.

Resources, Tools and Reports for Grown-Ups
According to the Center for Media Education (CME), stations that fail to comply with the regulations risk fines, restrictions on renewing their operating licenses or being subject to stricter reporting regulations.?

Want to know more? Check out these resources.

To monitor the implementation of the? 1990 act, parents can use the Children's Television Act Tool Kit, a great online product from the Center for Media and Education.

The National Institute on Media and the Family has a quiz and tools to help you evaluate your family's media habits, and a thorough, content-based rating of television shows, movies and video games for children.

Some reports to read include:

  • the Annenberg Public Policy Center's Kids TV 99 reports, where you'll find the comprehensive 1999 State of Children's Television report

  • the Center for Media Education's own analysis of the Children's Television Act

  • the Benton Foundation's summary of the 1990 act.

Connect for Kids has lots of information in our Media and Television pages in our Topics A-Z section of the Reference Room .



Caitlin Johnson is staff writer at Connect for Kids.