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Regulations on children's television programming in the United States facts for kids

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The broadcast of children's programming by terrestrial television stations in the United States is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), under regulations colloquially referred to as the Children's Television Act (CTA), the E/I rules, or the Kid Vid rules. Since 1997, all full-power and Class A low-power television stations have been required to broadcast at least three hours (or more if they operate digital subchannels) per-week of programs that are specifically designed to meet the educational and informative (E/I) needs of children aged 16 and younger. There are also regulations on advertising in broadcast and cable television programming targeting children 12 and younger, including limits on ad time, and prohibitions on advertising of products related to the program currently airing.

Early regulations on educational programming were implemented by the FCC in 1991, as ordered by the Children's Television Act—an Act of Congress passed in 1990. They included a requirement for television stations to document their broadcasting of programs which "[further] the positive development of children 16 years of age and under in any respect, including the child's intellectual/cognitive or social/emotional needs", and a requirement for the FCC to use this as a factor in license renewals. Stricter regulations were implemented in 1997, requiring all stations to broadcast at least 3 hours of programming per-week that is designed to educate and inform viewers aged 16 and younger, and introducing requirements regarding on-air identification of these programs, and more stringent reporting requirements.

The E/I regulations had a major impact on U.S. television; the syndication market was bolstered by demand for compliant educational programming, while the Saturday morning cartoon blocks traditionally aired by major networks began to increase their focus on educational programming. This factor, however, alongside the growth of cable channels (such as Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon) and other platforms serving youth demographics (which were not subject to the rules), contributed to an overall decline in broadcast television airings of non-educational children's programming.

The educational programming regulations have faced mixed reception. There have historically been concerns over whether these mandates constitute a violation of broadcasters' rights to free speech. The FCC's initial regulations faced criticism for being too broad in its definition of children's educational programming, with stations attempting to classify various non-educational programs as containing educational elements. In the years following the CTA's implementation, the Annenberg Foundation observed that the amount of "highly educational" programming on television had dropped, citing its allowance of programming discussing social issues to be counted, as opposed to programming dealing in traditional academic fields. The regulations have been described by current FCC commissioner Michael O'Rielly as "onerous" and outdated due to the cable and new media platforms that have emerged since their introduction, which led to changes in 2019 to provide more flexibility in compliance. Critics also pointed out that programs were often low quality live action "documentaries" which very few viewers actually watched. The regulations were not of any help to over the air channels already suffering from a declining number of viewers with the low quality E/I programming on weekend mornings frustrating viewers of over the air channels who sought content such as local news or local bilingual programming.

Background

Concern over the impact that television had on children began when television was still a new entertainment medium. During the 1950s, many individuals, particularly parents, asked their legislators to do something about the potential effects of television viewing on young people. Academic research was initiated since this time to monitor, analyze and explain the relationships between television and children, although the impact of television on academic performance continues to be debated in scholarly research. The first attempt to address these concerns were during Congressional hearings in 1952 that addressed violence. Besides Congress, there were government commissions that also pursued this agenda. Included in these discussions were the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Federal Trade Commission, and advocacy groups formed by concerned citizens. The FCC intended to change a number of policies regarding children's programming.

Research demonstrated that young children had difficulty distinguishing between the program they were watching, and commercials broadcast during them. Most children had little or no understanding of the persuasive intent of commercials, and as such, were highly vulnerable to claims and appeals by advertisers. Advertisers, especially those related to junk food, were interested in youth as consumers because of their spending power through their parents, their influence, and their brand awareness as adult consumers in the future.

Effects on programming

Following the implementation of the regulations, many television stations began to cut locally produced children's programs due to budgetary concerns, and largely replaced them with educational programs acquired from the syndication market. Studios such as Litton Entertainment have benefited from the resulting demand.

The Annenberg Foundation found that the number of network television shows deemed to be "highly educational" from 1990 to 1998 fell from 43% to 29%. A research report from Georgetown University said that one issue contributing to this was that what constituted "educational television" programming was defined too broadly, as programming that was only academic or that covered pro-social issues, for example, counted towards station requirements. Another issue was that traditional ideas of what should be taught to children, such as the alphabet or number systems, were lost. There was also a reported increase in the number of programs focusing on social issues. Writers for these programs wrote stories that often were not academically sound for young viewers, because they were not trained in writing for this audience. One show that was an exception to this rule is The Magic School Bus, as it combined effective writing and educational content for children.

Networks picked up series more often when they were related to a well-known pop culture icon, or could be marketable as toys. Owing to the success of PBS's Barney & Friends from both a critical and commercial standpoint, Disney and Nickelodeon saw a greater interest in making preschool programming that was more engaging and had educational value to its target audience. However, they also leveraged techniques designed to bolster the programs as a brand when merchandised, such as close-up "money shots" of key characters designed to encourage recognition of them by viewers.

Saturday morning blocks

In the wake of the stricter regulations, the big three television networks began to retool their Saturday morning lineups for the 1997-98 television season in order to include more educational programming.

ABC, which had recently been acquired by Disney, introduced One Saturday Morning for the 1997–98 season. It featured a mix of Disney animated series, educational interstitial segments (including a history-oriented segment starring comedian Robin Williams, reprising his role as the Genie from Aladdin), the new educational series Science Court, and a flagship wraparound program (Disney's One Saturday Morning). ABC stated that four of the block's five hours would be branded as E/I programming. One Saturday Morning quickly became the top Saturday morning block in terms of viewership, until competition from Fox Kids and Kids' WB began to erode its audience. In 2002, the block was rebranded as ABC Kids, which drew from the programming of Disney's cable networks Disney Channel, ABC Family (which Disney had recently acquired from Fox), and Toon Disney; the block would be reduced to four hours in 2004 (with Power Rangers being the only non-compliant program on the block).

CBS relaunched its Saturday morning block for the 1997–98 season as Think CBS Kids, with a focus on live-action educational series such as The New Ghostwriter Mysteries, The Weird Al Show, and Wheel 2000—a children's version of the game show Wheel of Fortune. CBS relaunched the block again the following season as the CBS Kidshow, with a focus on cartoons that were adapted from children's books, and produced by Canadian animation studio Nelvana. In 2000, following the network's acquisition by Viacom, CBS replaced Kidshow with a block programmed by its new corporate sister Nickelodeon; the block initially focused exclusively on preschool programming from the Nick Jr. brand, but from 2002 to 2004, the block targeted a broader youth audience. In 2006, after CBS and Viacom split back into separate companies, CBS partnered with DIC Entertainment to launch KOL Secret Slumber Party (in conjunction with AOL's children's vertical KOL). The block was re-branded as KEWLopolis the following season as part of a new sponsorship with American Greetings, and Cookie Jar TV in 2009 following the acquisition of DIC by Cookie Jar Group.

NBC had removed cartoons from its Saturday morning lineup in 1992 in favor of TNBC, which featured live-action sitcoms aimed towards a teen audience. After declining ratings, TNBC was replaced in 2001 with Discovery Kids on NBC, which was programmed by the cable channel Discovery Kids and featured factual entertainment programming and educational cartoons (including the first animated programs aired by NBC's Saturday morning lineup since the TNBC era). In September 2006, it was replaced by Qubo, a joint venture with Ion Media Networks, Nelvana owner Corus Entertainment, Scholastic and Classic Media that was focused on educational programming. Following Comcast's purchase of NBC Universal, the network pulled out of Qubo and replaced it with the preschool-targeted NBC Kids in 2012, which was programmed by new sister network Sprout.

The growing regulatory scrutiny, increasing competition from cable channels such as Cartoon Network, Disney Channel and Nickelodeon (which benefited from synergy and cross-promotion with The WB, ABC and CBS's children's blocks respectively), as well as video on-demand services, made non-educational Saturday morning programming less viable for networks. In June 2014, The CW, whose Vortexx block (programmed by Saban Brands) made it the last major U.S. network to still program non-educational programming on weekend mornings, announced that it would replace it with an E/I-centric block for the next television season.

Notable fines

In 2007, Univision agreed to a record $24 million fine for violations of the educational programming regulations across 24 of its stations, after falsely asserting that several youth-targeted telenovelas (such as Cómplices Al Rescate) were educational in nature.

Airings of anime on Kids' WB induced notable violations of the program-length commercial restrictions. The network aired several commercials during the Pokémon anime for products with Pokémon-related tie-ins (such as Eggo waffles, Fruit by the Foot, and the Nintendo e-Reader accessory for the Game Boy Advance). The FCC fined individual affiliates of The WB and upheld the fines on appeal (despite WCIU-TV trying to defend itself by arguing that the references were "fleeting"), even though it was the network which transmitted the content. In 2010, KSKN in Spokane, Washington was similarly fined $70,000 for having, on multiple occasions, aired an advertisement for a local collectibles shop during Yu-Gi-Oh!, which contained references to its eponymous trading card game as among products sold there.

In 2004, Disney and Viacom were respectively issued $1 million and $500,000 fines for violating the limits on advertising during children's programming on ABC Family and Nickelodeon. The fines were levied by the Federal Trade Commission, not the FCC, because the two channels were cable-exclusive and outside the FCC's purview.

Shift in demographics and content

In the early 2010s, broadcasters began to change the manner in which they addressed their E/I obligations, shifting to blocks of factual, documentary- and reality-style series aimed at a teen (13–16 years old) audience, in lieu of conventional children's programs (such as cartoons). Throughout the decade, ABC (Litton's Weekend Adventure), CBS (CBS Dream Team), The CW (One Magnificent Morning), and NBC (The More You Know) all leased their weekend morning blocks to Litton Entertainment to air such programming. After dropping 4Kids TV in 2008 (which by then, had only scheduled a single half-hour of E/I programming within) in favor of programming a national block of infomercials under the internal title "Weekend Marketplace", Fox entered into a similar arrangement with Steve Rotfeld Productions to produce the STEM-based block Xploration Station for its affiliates. It premiered in September 2014.

As they are only applied to programs targeting viewers 12 and younger, these programs are not subject to the advertising restrictions prescribed by the Children's Television Act. Litton faced criticism from Peggy Charren's daughter Claudia Moquin, for including product placement from "underwriters" in some of its programs (such as Electronic Arts, Norwegian Cruise Line, and SeaWorld), which, when combined with the lack of restrictions on commercial time, were described as a contravention of the spirit of the CTA. Litton defended its practices, stating that its programming was designed to meet "child psychologist-developed standards that did not exist prior to 1990", and considered them to be a preferential alternative to airing ads for junk food and toys instead.

PBS member stations have been an exception to this trend, with the network's PBS Kids block continuing to largely air animated, educational series catered towards a preschool audience.

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