Children and Televsion

This is the Children’s Television Acto of 1999.  If you are going to be involved in children’s media, television or Internet,  you should be aware of it.  Read About the TOP TEN KIDS SHOWS


To understand children’s television, one must begin with the complex nexus of factors that shape it. In one of the more lucent descriptions of the complexities of children’s television, Wartella (1994) describes four elements that shape what children see on television: the regulatory environment, the economic environment, the industry structure, and the internal constraints. Each will be discussed in light of the current state of children’s television.

Regulatory Environment

Children’s Television Act of 1990

A first important impact on the current state of children’s television has been the tremendous change in the regulation of children’s television. After decades of public and legislative debate, volumes of research, and the significant efforts of various advocacy groups, a policy shift occurred with the Children’s Television Act of 1990 (CTA) when the first national legislation directed at children’s television was passed (Wartella, 1994). Implemented January 1, 1992, the Act made three primary provisions:

1)            Every broadcast station was required to air programming that “furthers the positive development of the child in any respect, including the child’s cognitive/intellectual or emotional/social needs”in order to qualify for license renewal (Federal Communications Commission, 1991, p. 2114).

2)            Advertising on children’s programs was limited to 12 minutes per hour on weekdays and 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends. Program-length commercials were effectively banned from children’s television.

3)            The National Endowment for Children’s Educational Television was established.

The National Endowment for Children’s Educational Television (NECET) funded a number of successful educational programs such as Arthur and The Eddie Files. Unfortunately, Congress has not appropriated funds for NECET since 1995. At least some broadcast stations have made significant strides toward curtailing the advertising aired during children’s programming. The FCC has fined a number of stations that have failed to comply, although the fines have been nominal in relation to the revenues made by the prohibited advertisements. The development that most belied the spirit of CTA was the apparent confusion over how stations were to satisfy their obligation to the public interest and provide programming that furthered the positive development of children. Kunkel and Canepa’s (1994) review of compliance revealed stations were doing little better at providing educational programming for children after the implementation of the regulation than they were 15-20 years prior to the regulation.

Television Program Ratings and the V-Chip

The Telecommunications Act of 1996, enacted February 8, 1996, was an omnibus bill that simultaneously deregulated much of the telecommunications industry and offered parents a means of gaining greater control of the television content that comes into the home. The legislation offered parents greater control in two ways: 1) It encouraged a voluntary rating system of television content; and 2) It called for V-Chip technology.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in an official Report and Order (FCC 98-36) released on March 12, 1997, adopted technical rules that require television receivers with screens 13 inches or larger sold in the U.S. to be equipped with a “V-Chip” that will allow parents to block the display of unwanted programming. According to the guidelines of the order, set manufacturers will have to include the V-Chip in at least half of their television receivers by July 1, 1999, and all receivers by January 1, 2000.

6            The Annenberg Public Policy CenterThe technology works with the “TV Parental Guidelines,” a voluntary rating system2 developed by the television industry, consisting of six descriptive labels. The system categorizes shows on the basis of age and/or maturity; sexual situations, violence, language or dialogue. The age ratings include the following: TV-Y (all children), TV-Y7 (ages seven and above), TV-G (general audience), TV-PG (parental guidance suggested), TV-14 (parents strongly cautioned) and TV-MA (mature audiences only). The content ratings are V- violence, S- sexual situations, L- coarse language, or D- some suggestive dialogue. All of these content ratings apply specifically to adult programs. The only content rating for children’s programming (rated TV-Y7) is an FV for fantasy violence.

The V-Chip will read information encoded in the program and block content based on either the overall age category; the FV, S, L, V, D rating assigned; or by a combination of the two, as determined by parents.

The “Three-Hour Rule”

Finally, in a ruling released on August 8, 1996, the FCC presented new rules that strengthened and clarified how broadcasters are expected to comply with the Children’s Television Act. The rules covered the definition of educational programming, the minimum amount of such programming required each week, on- and off-air labeling of educational children’s programs, and new mechanisms for public accountability. For a more complete exposition of the Three-Hour Rule please see Jordan (1999).

Briefly, the rules require that stations broadcast a minimum of three hours of educational programming each week that somehow meets the educational and informational needs of children 16 years of age and younger. The programs must be designed for a target age group, have a clear educational objective, be at least 30 minutes in length, and be regularly scheduled between the hours of 7:00 am and 10:00 pm. In addition to these requirements, the programs must be identified as educational both on-air and to television listing services such as TV Guide. To increase station accountability to the public, stations must maintain a public file of their educational offerings and have a staff member available to answer any questions members of the public may have about the programming.

Economic Environment

The second major influence on the state of children’s television is the economic environment. Children’s television has shared in the general economic prosperity of the times. In 1998, children’s advertising expenditures were up 13.5 percent from the previous year to $1.13 billion in revenue completing five consecutive years of growth. Some industry speculators suggest that 1999 will not be as prosperous as previous years based on up front advertising purchases for the year and a poorly performing toy industry (McConville, 1999b). However, upfront sales were down last year before the market turned in its best growth in the five year span. Moreover, as one industry observer noted, the real money in the children’s television industry is in licensing and merchandising, international sales, and home video (Spring, 1999). For instance, Pokemon a popular syndicated program has grown into an international industry that includes trading cards, comic books, plastic figurines, virtual pets, bean-bag toys, lunch boxes, T-shirts and compact disks, with total sales so far of nearly $5 billion in its short three year existence (King, 1999). Educational programs also enjoy alternative revenue streams as Sesame Street’s Tickle Me Elmo doll reportedly earned $107 million in about a year and a half (mid-1996 through 1998) (King, 1999).

Industry Structure

The third influence on the state of children’s television is the industry structure. The market for children’s eyeballs has grown increasingly competitive over the last few years (Jordan, 1999). Currently there are four full-time children’s cable networks, Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, and the Fox Family Channel. On February 2, 1999 Children’s Television Workshop and Nickelodeon launched its joint venture, Noggin, a commercial-free children’s network that features educational programming around the clock. While plans are in the works to have it carried by local cable providers, the channel is currently distributed to about two million homes primarily through the EchoStar satellite system (Petrozzello, 1999). Also added to the crowded field are the broadcast networks, Kids’WB and Fox Kids. Toon Disney is a digital network spin-off of the Disney Channel that is already in ten million mostly analog cable and satellite households (McClellan & Tedesco, 1999). In addition to these concentrated efforts to reach the child audience, various broadcast networks, weblets, and independents, and basic and premium cable channels also air children’s shows. There are numerous plans in the works for even more children’s programming outlets. For instance, Fox will launch two cable channels, one for boys called Boyz and one for girls called Girlz within the year.

While the competition for the attention of the child audience for television is growing fiercer, the child audience’s attention to television is steadily declining. Though television viewing is still a prominent part of children’s lives as stated earlier, some data indicate it is less so than just a few years ago. Nielsen Media Research suggests children’s television viewing has decreased about 15 percent since 1989. 3 The declining viewership should serve to intensify competition.

When children do tune in, they are likely to watch the offerings of Nickelodeon, followed by the Cartoon Network. The share of the child audience for Nickelodeon is just over 50 percent while the Cartoon Network has just over a quarter of the audience. The rest of the venues for children’s programming capture less than 10 percent of the audience each (McClellan & Tedesco, 1999). This is understandable as Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network air children’s shows throughout their programming day where most of the other venues do not.

Internal Constraints

The final influences on the current state of children’s television are internal constraints. These include the network executives’and producers’perspectives of their audience and the practices they employ to provide programming for the child audience (Wartella, 1994). A 1996 survey (Jordan, 1996) of industry personnel uncovered four general perceptions. First, it was widely held that children outgrow “educational programming”by the time they are six. Second, it was believed the only way to provide educational content to the older child is to skip the academic and focus on the social. Third, some thought it was more expensive and more difficult to create educational programs than entertainment programs. Finally, a number of industry executives thought it was better to gear programs to a boy audience than a girl audience or a mixed audience. A 1999 update of conventional wisdom suggests that industry executives have progressed significantly from these monolithic views of the child audience and that many in the commercial broadcast sector have become increasingly sensitive to the educational needs of the child audience (Jordan, 1999).

The changes in the regulatory environment, the economic environment, the industry structure, and the internal constraints all indicate an increase in the quality of children’s programming this year. The “Three-Hour Rule”should raise the number of educational programs available over the years before its implementation. The economic prosperity should free investment capital for quality programming. The industry structure should make for increased competition that in turn should lead to more quality programming. Finally, industry executives more aware of the needs of children should be more capable of doing what is necessary to produce quality programming. The next section examines whether or not this expectation for greater quality was realized in the 1998/99 season.

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