Watching Fred Flintstone drop a bowling ball on his foot may not hurt kids as much as it does the cartoon caveman. But the Federal Communications Commission says that young viewers also need a healthy dose of education and information on TV. The question is, Will they swallow it?
Under the new Democratic regime in Washington, an invigorated FCC has ordered an inquiry and Congress has scheduled hearings to determine whether TV stations have in fact been complying with the Children’s Television Act of 1990, a law that limits advertising time in children’s programming and requires stations to make a serious effort to serve kids’ educational and informational needs.
This month the FCC announced that, contrary to its previous position, shows like G.I. Joe and The Flintstones are not educational. And to prove it means business, the agency has in the last several weeks delayed the license renewals of seven TV stations in Ohio and Michigan until they supply more information about just how they are complying with the law.
All of a sudden, producers are feverishly trying to figure out how to make shows that comply with the law and make money. The problem is that at least three of the shows created since the law was enacted — Wide World of Kids, K-TV, and Way Cool — have already bombed. A newer entry, a half-hour show from Turner Broadcasting called Real News for Kids, is showing signs of trouble with low ratings and limited ad support.
”A lot of these information-entertainment shows have not been particularly successful,” says Saban Entertainment’s David Goodman. ”There are ways to do it, but I don’t think anybody has discovered them.” Goodman is selling a new show, Mad Scientist Toon Club, featuring a wacky scientist who performs educational experiments in between cartoon segments. It’s one of about half a dozen upcoming shows being billed in TV trade magazines as ”FCC friendly.” The problem, says Goodman, is that most kids prefer cartoons and puppets to the straightforward format of many educational shows.
With their new ammunition, children’s advocates are turning up the heat. ”When you get your license as a TV station, along with it comes a requirement to serve the public,” says Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children’s Television. ”Sometimes you don’t make money, but you have to do it anyway. That’s what the renewal process is all about.”
Meanwhile, cable networks — which are not required to air any educational shows — are racing to put even more cartoons on their schedule. ”Cable,” says Charren with a shrug, ”is not licensed to serve public interest.”