The FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Children’s Television has been published in the Federal Register, setting the dates for comments on the questions that the FCC asks about changing the rules – particularly those rules dealing with educational and informational programming directed to children. Comments are due September 24, with replies due October 23. See the FCC Public Notice on these comment dates for more information. With the dates now set, it is worth reviewing the questions that the FCC asks about whether changes in the video marketplace require that the rules for educational and informational programming be changed.

The rules currently require that a television station broadcast an average of three hours per week of “core” educational and informational programming directed to children 16 and under to avoid special scrutiny by the FCC at license renewal time. Core programming must run between 7 AM and 10 PM, and must be aired at regularly scheduled times in blocks of at least half an hour. For stations that multicast, each multicast stream has an independent 3 hour per week obligation, though the required children’s programming for one multicast channel can run instead on another multicast channel (or on the station’s main channel) as long as it reaches a comparable MVPD audience. What changes are being considered?

The FCC asks questions in a number of areas. It asks many questions as to whether television viewing habits of children have changed in the more than 12 years since the last major revision in these rules to justify new changes. General questions are posed about whether children’s services from cable and satellite programming, online programming and even public television programming have changed the needs of children for educational and informational programming by commercial broadcasters. Also, has the method of consumption of video programming – on more of an on-demand rather than “appointment” basis – minimized the need for rigid schedules of children’s educational programming? And has the proliferation of short online programs changed attention spans so that half-hour blocks of programming are no longer the best way to convey information to children?

Based on these broader themes, the FCC asks questions including:

  • Does core programming still need to be in blocks of 30 minutes, or can shorter amounts of programming be used to meet the required amount of children’s programming? If shorter amounts of programming can be used, should it be counted on a minute-by-minute basis toward meeting the current 3 hour requirement, or can some other compliance metric be used?
  • Given the changes in “appointment” television expectations, does core programming still need to be at regular times and during the hours from 7 AM to 10 PM?
  • Does core programming still need to have the “E/I” logo on screen? Do stations still need to provide specific information about core programs to TV Guide and other program guides, or can broadcasters be counted on to promote their programs so that viewers can find it?
  • Are there ways to streamline the reporting requirements? Should, for instance, the Quarterly Children’s television reports be filed only once a year? Should promises about future programming be eliminated, so the reports only report on what was actually broadcast?
  • How should the FCC’s renewal processing guidelines be changed? Should stations still need to air three hours per week, averaged on a 6 month basis, or can the average be on a yearly basis? Should minimums still be required each week? The FCC has always allowed a station to meet its obligations by other means that demonstrate its service to children, but stations have not used that alternative as no one knows what would be an acceptable alternative to the three hour per week average. Should some specific alternatives be provided, and if so, what are they?
  • Is a mandatory 3 hours per week of educational and informational programming still necessary? Even if necessary on the station’s main channel, is that same obligation necessary on each subchannel?
  • Should non-broadcast efforts be a substitute for the broadcast of educational and informational programming by broadcasters? Could funding such programming on a noncommercial station in a broadcaster’s market, or even on another commercial station, be a substitute?

These and other questions are being asked by the Commission to determine how broadcasters will need to meet the needs of children in the future. If you have comments on these controversial issues, make them known by the filing deadlines announced yesterday.