Selected Skirmishes: Prime Time

Clinton's do-bad TV policy.


Our President cares deeply about the fate of Our Children. So astounding is his warmth for the tiny tots that he has gone to bat for parents everywhere by Doing Something about the "vast wasteland" we call children's television. When President Clinton announced that each TV station must now air three hours per week of educational programs for children, the measure was hailed as the greatest tubular leap forward since living color.

But there is another story lurking behind this one that I don't think you're going to want the kids to hear. Send them to bed, and pull up a chair.

The administration's agreement with the broadcasters will do nothing to help America's youth. Let me amend that statement: It will do nothing for the children of people other than Washington lawyers.

One reason that junior's college fund will balloon if his mommy is a member of the communications bar is that broadcasters don't really have to air educational programming–a station gets to farm out its responsibility to other stations (or to substitute other, non-TV types of "public service"). Since the broadcasting industry claims that it already airs over four hours per week of educational kid vid, on average, per station, simply divvying up the responsibility pie satisfies the new "mandate" without even an extra millisecond of Fat Albert face time.

Certainly, the Keystone Comedy of federal agents classifying shows as "educational" or "non" is worth the price of admission to this policy charade. Perhaps you watch enough TV to know that, by past FCC decisions, The Jetsons and The Flintstones are not educational, that Saved by the Bell and The Smurfs are, and that Pee Wee's Playhouse probably is.

But, of course, even this ratings system is a scam. Once a show is rated as "educational," what's to prevent it from switching writers with, say, Beavis and Butt-Head? Moreover, who's to say that The People's Court, the Olympic Games, or Jeopardy! are not child friendly? I believe that any kid who has done some hard time with Judge Wapner would have a healthy respect for right and wrong–and be damned certain never to lose his receipts.

The history of educational TV is educational. The hundreds of educational TV licenses distributed by the FCC in the 1950s flopped miserably. Emboldened by this failure, in 1960 the FCC mandated children's educational programming on commercial TV stations at license renewal time.

By 1970, it was obvious that this policy was a joke, and so a new and improved standard for kid vid was imposed. More years passed. By 1990, Congress was so outraged by the failure of regulation that it got tough and enacted the Children's Television Act. By 1995, the FCC's own study concluded that all of these policy initiatives had been wholly unsuccessful–and proposed, of course, doing more of the same.

It really is obvious that we are not learning anything from television.

Ironically, the FCC often pursues policies that do materially impact the availability of quality TV for children (and adults), but no one seems to notice. In 1963, when young Mr. Clinton was shaking hands with his hero at the White House, the Kennedy administration was moving decisively to suppress cable TV–the new medium that the powerful broadcasting industry thought a threat to the public interest. We now understand, via a federal deregulation undertaken in the late 1970s, that niche cable TV networks naturally seek to provide fine programming for children. Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel, the Learning Channel, MindExtension University, C-SPAN, CNN, Discovery, A&E, Jones Computer Network, and the History Channel provide imaginative and challenging video for learners of all ages. Lesson: Allow competitive channels, and they will cater to diverse audiences.

Here's the twist ending to this show: The president's kid-vid policy is part of an effort to keep lots–perhaps hundreds–of new video channels off the air. Broadcasters, who are willing to give great photo ops to Candidate Clinton in exchange for $11 billion to $70 billion in free digital-TV licenses, don't want any competitors getting access to the huge swatches of unused frequencies in the TV band. These could provide vast new niche competition in the TV marketplace.

Hence, the real bargain struck by the Clinton administration (unopposed, incidentally, by the "radical" Republicans), was a conspiracy in restraint of trade with America's broadcasters. Because the opportunity for many more broadcast competitors has vanished into thin air, so too have real quality improvements in kid vid.

Yet, in five years, the chairman of the FCC will be chief counsel for CBS–or function in some other quasi-lobbying slot–and be teaching his successors in government service about the intricate regulatory system wherein press releases and focus groups now trump the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. That's an educational opportunity America's young people should be tuning in to.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett (hazlett@primal.ucdavis.edu) teaches economics and finance at the University of California at Davis.