The FCC’s reexamination of the Children’s Television Act (CTA), which sets forth a myriad of rules and regulations with respect to the broadcasting of children’s programming, has entered the next phase as the deadline to submit public comments passed on Monday. FCC Commissioner Michael O’Reilly announced in January as part of the FCC’s media modernization campaign that the commission will consider rolling back regulations under the CTA. O’Reilly’s announcement has sparked heated debate amongst dozens of broadcasters, media companies, and public interest groups as to what, if any, changes should be made.
The CTA was first passed by Congress in 1991 to require broadcasters to air some amount of standard-length educational and informational programming specifically designed for children under 17 years old. Although no minimum requirement of programming hours was imposed at that time, the law’s regulations strengthened over the years and now require broadcast companies to air an average of three hours of children’s programming per week between the times of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Additionally, core children’s programming must run at least 30 minutes in length, be regularly scheduled weekly, and be labeled throughout the episode with an “E” or “I” symbol. Broadcast networks are also required on a quarterly basis to specify in writing the objective of their current and prospective programming, target child audience, and various other data requiring voluminous paperwork to be filed with the FCC. Non-compliance with any of these requirements jeopardizes a broadcast company’s ability to renew its license.
Of course, a lot has happened in media over the 27 years since the CTA’s passing. The explosion of the Internet and proliferation of alternative means of media consumption including over-the-top providers, subscription services, video-on-demand content, and paid television means traditional broadcast is no longer the primary means through which anyone, let alone kids, consumes content. O’Reilly argues broadcasters are at a further disadvantage in this increasingly competitive field by having to contend with the CTA’s outdated regulations which he claims are costly and unduly limit creativity.
Specifically, the FCC is considering elimination of the requirement that core programming be at least 30 minutes in length. O’Reilly cites “Schoolhouse Rock” and “In the News” as examples of shorter programs with notable success that were killed off by the CTA. Also on the chopping block is the requirement that children’s programming be between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., the requirement that programming be regularly scheduled weekly, and the mandate that broadcast networks submit extensive paperwork regarding their programs on a quarterly basis as opposed to O’Reilly’s recommendation to require the materials annually.
Critics of the proposed changes claim unwinding the CTA would result in less children’s programming on broadcast television, which disproportionally impacts millions of low income families who do not have access to the Internet or alternative means of media consumption. O’Reilly counters arguing deregulation will not eliminate children’s content from broadcast television but will rather allow broadcasters greater flexibility to design more cost-effective means of providing this content. There is no evidence the CTA has enhanced children’s programming since the 1990s, argues O’Reilly, and the market for this programming is strong enough to sustain itself without heavy regulation. For instance, O’Reilly cites PBS Kids (a 24/7 children’s content provider) which was licensed to approximately 100 stations nationwide covering 90 percent of U.S. television households.
The FCC is required to issue a reply to public comments by October 23 and thereafter determine an appropriate regularly scheme. Note, the CTA’s regulations requiring kid-appropriate commercials when broadcasting children’s programming are not part of this reexamination and are expected to remain in full force.