Life & Liberty: A Happy Ending for Kids' TV?


According to Paula Quint, associate director of the Children's Book Council in New York, there are about 50,000 children's books in print in this country, with about 3,000 new quality kids' books published each year—not including texts or mass-market books such as 89-cent Golden Books. She estimates the number of children's book publishers at between 300 and 400. "The diversity of material available to kids from preschool to junior high is amazing," she said.

The children's magazine market is equally vital. Twenty-two national magazines, such as National Geographic World and Boys' Life, exist for preteens, with eight of them having appeared in the last six years. If you include church-and classroom-related periodicals, the number is 75, according to a 1981 article in American Libraries.

Interestingly, the book and magazine industries are near-absolute free markets, thanks largely to their First Amendment protections. There's no government authority that licenses book and magazine publishers, making sure that they serve the children's market or lose their right to make money entertaining and edifying.

Yet a free market in the television industry is the last thing wanted by those who worry about the quantity and quality of kids' TV. When the Federal Communications Commission, regulator of the broadcasting industry in the United States, decided last December to reject mandatory programming requirements for children's TV, kids' TV forces weren't cheering.

They say that allowing a free market to exist in the television industry is tantamount to child abuse. Strict government supervision is necessary, they insist, because "the marketplace doesn't work" for children because "there's no profit in kids." They argue that kids' TV already is nearly extinct on the networks and that it will disappear altogether if the commission isn't around.

It's a laudable goal, more and better programs for children. But kidvid activists have assumed without questions that regulation is the way to secure that goal. They have won some battles through the years, but lately it looks as if they're losing the war.

The current FCC, under free-market-minded Chairman Mark Fowler, is busy "unregulating" the whole communications field. Congress appears to be in a similar deregulatory mood; Sen. Robert Packwood (R–Ore.) introduced a bill last year to recognize the same First Amendment rights for the electronic media as the print media enjoy.

Philosophically, Fowler holds that the government has no right to cajole, threaten, coerce—or favor—broadcasters or cable, that even the purveyors of The Dukes of Hazard have First Amendment rights. Practically, Fowler believes that when given the chance, a free television market can determine and satisfy consumers' TV needs—kids' included—much more efficiently than can lawmakers or bureaucrats.

In agitating for government regulation to continue, kids' TV interests fail to appreciate how the government regulatory system itself has been over the years the major determinant of the quality of television fare. It was the FCC that set up and perpetuated the original three-channel commercial television wasteland. Until recently, the agency often shaped its rules and regulations to protect the economic interests of broadcast networks (so-called free TV) from competition from upstarts such as cable and pay TV.

With such protection from competition, why would the big-three networks scramble to satisfy consumers? In fact, they didn't do much scrambling. The "TV marketplace" that kids' forces claim has failed children was never a real marketplace, and not much about the ability of the industry to meet children's needs should be drawn from past history.

Thankfully, that ancient TV world is gone forever. The returns, in television in general and in children's TV, are rolling in.

Since 1975, when the FCC first started to deregulate the television marketplace, new technologies and entrepreneurs have brought consumers a taste of cable's long-heralded diversity. Today, there are more than 30 satellite-fed basic cable services and 10 national pay-TV channels, with about 30 other networks announced or proposed. Low-power TV, satellite TV, and other known and unknown video forms lie ahead.

There are lots of good kids' shows on TV already. (The problem is that kids—who watch just about anything at any time—won't watch them.) Independent stations air kids' shows; PBS offers more than 30 hours a week; and on cable, the medium best suited in the long run to providing children and other viewing minorities with shows, USA Network carries Calliope and HBO offers Muppet-master Jim Henson's Fraggle Rock. Nickelodeon, with 10-million-plus cable homes, and the Disney Channel, a pay channel, both are whole channels devoted to children's programming.

But children's TV activists seem unimpressed by these early blessings of the video revolution. They narrow their vision to the shortcomings of the networks—those mass-minded dinosaurs-in-decline who've cut back to occasional after-school specials and universally decried Saturday-morning cartoons.

They discount cable because it goes to only 40 percent of all households. Or because it's too expensive (although about $20 a month buys basic cable plus one pay channel such as HBO or the Disney Channel). But does every kid need to have access to the same shows? Then why not the same children's books or magazines or video cassettes?

Television today is no nirvana of "narrowcasting" for kids or adults, and it never will be, with or without an FCC. We'll probably never get enough of the kind of shows that the kidvid interests want or think we ought to have, but it's not clear that we really want or need that many anyway.

The free market—with all its change and complexity and surprises, with all its winners and losers—meets children's needs in books and magazines and recordings and toys and clothes. It can work the same "miracle" for kids in television, if we let it.

Bill Steigerwald has three kids. He is a copy editor for the Los Angeles Times's arts and entertainment section, where a version of this article was published recently.