Last week, Commissioner O’Rielly published an article on the FCC blog, suggesting that one of the next steps in the FCC’s Modernization of Media Regulation initiative should be the review of the FCC rules setting obligations for television stations to air educational and informational programming directed to children. Stations are required to air an average of 3 hours of educational and informational programming per programming stream, and there are a host of related obligations generally requiring that the programming be run at regular times and be at least 30 minutes in length. The rules also limit the ability to count repeats of such programs and requires that this programming be advertised in local programming guides. We have written about fines or warnings that the FCC has issued in many cases, including questioning whether programming classified as educational and informational really should have been classified in that manner, for failing to have an onscreen “E/I bug” labeling, for counting one-time programs to meet the requirement for 3 hours of regularly scheduled programs, the programming as educational, and for failing to publish information about these programs in local program guides.
The Commissioner raised the question of whether the obligation, adopted in the 1990mos (see the FCC order here) really continues to make sense in today’s media marketplace. So much has changed in the last 23 years, including the explosion of different sources of educational programming for children – including cable, Internet and other sources. No longer are TV stations the only sources of video programming – and, in a world where even Big Bird has moved to a cable platform, there is a real question as to whether over-the-air television stations are even the best platforms for the delivery of such programs. With so many competing sources of children’s programming, the Commissioner asked whether there is really a need for each station to do 3 hours of such programming on each of its channels. Certainly, there have been questions of whether quality programming can be produced to meet the obligations for each channel and subchannel, when the new program sources are splintering the potential audience for any such programs. The Commissioner also suggests that the current rules limit creativity in programming – forcing broadcasters to spend money on 30-minute on-air programs and not on other potential ways of meeting the needs of children, e.g. through short-form programs or online information.
While the requirement for television stations to meet the educational and informational needs of children is written Communications Act, the specific rules are not. The statute, Section 303b of the Act, only says that the FCC must evaluate the efforts of TV stations to meet the educational and informational needs of children at license renewal time – not specifying how much time must be devoted to such programs or how it is to be delivered. That is all left up to the FCC. Thus, the FCC can reevaluate these issues – and we will be interested to see if this effort goes further in the near future. The FCC has already tackled several long-standing day-to-day obligations that had imposed significant burdens on broadcasters – for instance modernizing EEO outreach obligations by allowing recruiting to be done online (see our articles here and here) and eliminating the main studio and local staffing requirements (see our articles here and here). So even long-established rules are subject to the current Commission’s long overdue fundamental review – and the time seems to be coming to look at these children’s television obligations too.