Congress Battles He-Man, Master of the Universe


Don't worry that you're not a good enough parent to supervise your children's TV viewing habits. Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television (ACT), is persuading Congress to do it for you.

She is lobbying for a bill, already approved by the House, that would reinstate limits on the amount of commercial time in children's programs. Good intentions prove an inadequate substitute for good judgment, however, as the measure would likely have the unintended effects of making toys more expensive, encouraging toy-based programs, and allowing the broadcasting industry to trade away its freedom of speech for a less competitive environment.

The bill, which roared through the House by a vote of 328 to 78, is much watered-down compared to the original draft. Earlier versions, for example, banned toy-based programs altogether. The proposed limits—not more than 12 minutes of commercials per hour on weekdays and 10½ minutes per hour on weekends—are even less restrictive than rules dropped by the FCC in 1984. In fact, a survey of 469 stations showed they air an average of only 8½ minutes of commercials per hour in children's shows anyway.

The bill may actually be a boon to broadcasters who, like a lot of other businesses, don't like the hostile, competitive environment of deregulation. (The National Association of Broadcasters isn't opposing the watered-down version.) A legal limit on advertising time could reduce the supply and raise the price toward the monopoly level—and squeeze out upstarts who sell lots of ad time at a cheap price. (OPEC would love a similar way to prevent "unscrupulous" members from offering cut-rate supplies.)

The result of such limits may be more expensive commercials for toy makers, who might pass the cost on through higher toy prices. Also, broadcasters may try to recoup lost ad revenue by making more toy-based programs. So if anything, the bill will encourage exactly what it was originally intended to eliminate.

Whether broadcasters gain or lose is least important. Whether children gain or lose is at best unclear. Watching toy commercials is the video equivalent of entering a toy store, and it's difficult to imagine a single kid who was harmed by visiting a toy store.

The certain victim in this whole scenario, however, is the First Amendment. There can be no such thing as a free electronic press as long as a few angry congressmen get together at any time and wipe out, or for that matter create, lucrative revenue sources for broadcasters.