Selected Skirmishes: Kiddie Pawn

Educational TV's hyperlink to smut


You're smarter than before. C'mon, admit it. You're frothing with intellectual fizz. And so's your kid. You're both mentally healthier, less prone to violence, more concerned about society's forward progress. All since September, when the government's mandate that American TV stations put on three hours a week of educational programming for children kicked in.

Every direct-mail hustler in the charity business knows how to crank the fattest returns from a universe of fund-raising marks: You put an innocent child's portrait on the envelope. Add some splendid scene of squalor and you've got a genuine Kodak moment. The helplessness of a child in the face of raw forces spontaneously evokes our Inner Mom. Nature virtually bellows "Nurture!," and even the grizzliest among us feels the pangs of human tenderness when confronted by the cuddly Poster Boy.

This instinct is so powerful that it has given those who peddle discredited theories of government regulation a new lease on life. Newton Minow, for instance. President Kennedy's selection to head the Federal Communications Commission famously uttered the indictment (in a 1961 speech to the broadcaster's convention) that the entire medium had produced nothing but a "vast wasteland," an entertainment Siberia.

Minow updated his complaint in 1995's Abandoned in the Wasteland, where he courageously advanced a frontal attack on the American system of free speech. This despite the grave personal danger: "For half a century," he wrote, "anyone who has questioned the American commercial television system has been shouted down as a censor." But nothing could cow the former commissioner, who held before him an impregnable shield: "I believe the public interest requires us to ask what we can do for our children."

What we can do for our children is regulate TV. And so, the FCC has come to the rescue with beefed-up rules about how much educational programming your local TV station will be required to display as part of its license deal. We should not dwell on the somewhat embarrassing fact that the FCC has ostensibly required commercial broadcasters to perform such public service since even before Newton Minow was its able chairman.

Nor should we pause to consider that, over 35-plus years, this regulatory mandate has been labeled a "joke" several hundred times more often than it has been referenced as a "notable success resulting in the happiness and improved welfare of the little people we call kids." Ignore too that the only certain material impact of the new FCC rules will be many extra zeros in the billable-hour logs that ex-commissioners maintain at their new, post-FCC law firms.

Skip even that the truly exceptional commercial programming that does exist today on Discovery, A&E, the Learning Channel, Animal Planet, Nickelodeon, Disney, and other cable channels once attracted the ire of federal regulators–including most spectacularly Minow himself. This was the long-running episode in the 1960s and 1970s in which cable television was quashed in the "public interest" (and, coincidentally, to placate the broadcast lobby–those smokestacks of telegenic "toxic waste," in Minow's words).

Yeah, forget all that. What is truly notable about the "children's television" argument for getting over our obsession with the First Amendment is the thought that America's youth will be improved by watching broadcast's regulation-induced output. Does Junior's mom say to his dad, "Gee, Buck, the kid's just not getting it–if only Fox would bring back that Mr. Wizard guy"? Wouldn't the safer bet be that time spent watching TV is pretty much an intellectual holding pattern?

Don't get me wrong: I'd be the last to underestimate the utility of electronic babysitters, mindless background noise, or–ahhhh–just plain vegging. And any time you cue up the video with the nature shots of the walrus and the hedgehog, I'm there. I have even argued in this very journalistic forum that the social advance wrought by the program niche-dwellers on the cable dial–CNN, C-SPAN, even HBO–is on (or leading!) the right side of history. But the good stuff which people freely watch won't be affected by the government's new rules, which will force–at best–a tiny amount of programming that will attract very few eyeballs (only those attached to people, old or young, who have temporarily misplaced the remote). Else the networks wouldn't have to be bludgeoned to program this fare.

In the end, it's quite all right if government-induced educational shows prove less than mesmerizing. After all, it's hard to imagine a family friend telling young Susie,"Young lady, you're going to have to start spending more time in front of the television. Come on now. It's educational."

The kid-vid initiative may yet bear this sweet but unexpected fruit: If the regulators succeed in dulling down TV, it will drive millions of alert young viewers off the broadcast airwaves altogether. Where will they go? Off to surf the Net, of course, where they will be surrounded by the unspeakable horrors of cyberspace, touted by the disturbed grownups pushing the Communications Decency Act. Our children may be traumatized, but at least they'll be computer literate!

That's a twisted bit of public policy logic, but hey–what do you expect from the gurus running our federal agencies? They grew up on television.

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