The battle over children's programming
Written by J. Bennett Guess
December 2005 - January 2006
December 1, 2005

UCC heads to federal court to save FCC's television guidelines

Peggy Charren knows a thing or two about children's television. In 1968, as the doting mother of two young daughters, she was busy coordinating children's book fairs "up and down New England," when an idea came to her.

"Why don't I get television to be as delicious for children as a good book?" she thought.

Charren, then 40, had grown irritated with TV's lack of quality choices for kids, and, especially, how the already-limited programming was constantly being interrupted "to tell children to buy things they didn't need."

A staunch free-speech advocate — "Censorship is worse than any junk on television" — Charren insisted, that more-diverse choices and approaches, better-informed parents, and guidelines on "commercial speech" (advertising) were the best paths to pursue.

So, what began as "volunteer work" quickly evolved into an industry-altering organization known as Action for Children's Television, a grassroots campaign that went to bat for kids when very few were. Soon, the ever-affable Charren — who didn't mind addressing a Federal Communications Commissioner as "pumpkin" or a U.S. Senator as "sweetheart" — was challenging government's highest decision makers to "make sure that vulnerable populations weren't being lied to."

In 1971, for example, she led a successful fight before the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission to stop pharmaceutical companies from marketing "cutesy vitamins" directly to kids, especially since the sugar-coated pills were clearly labeled "Keep out of the reach of children" and were known to induce comas if taken in excess. She also made an issue out of the fact that children were being bombarded with nearly double the amount of television advertising time, in spite of research that shows that children under the age of 10 can't distinguish the difference between editorial and commercial speech.

It didn't take long for Charren to become regarded as the nation's most-influential and respected advocate for children in the television industry. Her persistence is widely credited for fueling the eventual passage of the Children's Television Act of 1990, which led to the first-ever FCC rules requiring children's educational programming. After retiring in 1992, Charren was honored by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and with a prestigious Peabody Award.

'Because of the UCC'

Ironically, Charren, now 77 — who is Jewish — largely credits the United Church of Christ for her accomplishments.

In the late 1960s, when she was just starting out, Charren had lots of passion but little experience with FCC politics, much less the money needed to hire specialized attorneys to prepare complicated legal briefs on behalf of kids.

So Charren approached the Rev. Everett C. Parker, then director of the UCC's Office of Communication. At the time, the church had recently pursued and won a monumental FCC challenge, and Charren was interested in getting some advice.

"The United Church of Christ is famous in broadcast circles," Charren said, recalling the UCC's historic legal challenge in the early 1960s against WLBT-TV in Jackson, Miss., for "failing to serve the public interest" of its African-American viewers.

After Charren's meeting with Parker, he agreed not only to help her make contact with the best attorney available, but said the UCC would arrange for pro bono legal services.

"That just might be the most important thing that happened for us," she said. "The church helped ACT to get off its back, and [the attorney] didn't even charge us." Charren also was buoyed by how the UCC helped established the premise that, as owners of the airwaves, the people — not just corporations — were entitled to "standing" before the FCC. The church's breakthrough paved the way for Charren and other public-interest advocates to have their voices heard.

"That to me was the most important thing that happened in all of this, because of everything the United Church of Christ did and what the church's filings [with the FCC] have done since."

Successes 'under attack'

In more recent years, however, as television networks have undertaken a technological shift from broadcast to digital-delivery modes, the fight over children's programming has revved up considerably. In short, the television industry wants the children's rules halted.

That's led to some rather-intense legal wrangling during the past two months, and the UCC now finds itself at the center of a new, significant fight — preserving the basic tenets of the Children's Television Act enacted 15 years ago.

In so doing, the UCC is now involved in two parallel court cases that effectively pit the church against two of the world's largest media conglomerates, and the outcome could prove historic.

In October, CBS/Viacom and ABC/Disney came out swinging against newer FCC guidelines, set to take effect on January 1, 2006. The two corporations announced that they would ask the U.S. Court of Appeals' D.C. Circuit to put the children's guidelines on hold, despite the fact that the rules were adopted unanimously by FCC Commissioners in September 2004.

As enacted, the FCC's new guidelines would make it more difficult for broadcasters to preempt children's educational TV shows, especially those that typically air on Saturday mornings. In addition, the new requirements will require three hours of educational or informational programming each week on broadcaster's primary and digital channels, as well as limitations on non-educational promotions.

The UCC's Office of Communication, Inc. (OC, Inc.), in keeping with its long history of media advocacy on behalf of the public interest, initiated its own legal action — asking the U.S. Court of Appeal's Sixth Circuit (which includes Ohio, where the UCC is headquartered) to require the FCC to preserve and further strengthen the new rules.

"Many in the high reaches of the media industry have fired their guns at the FCC's children's educational rules," said the UCC's Gloria Tristani, a former FCC Commissioner and OC, Inc.'s managing director, speaking at a Capital Hill press conference on Oct. 25.

"The industry's recent battery of lawsuits and fi lings before the FCC and the federal courts seeking to dismantle the children's educational rules, and even the Children's Television Act, signal an abandonment of their obligation to serve the special needs of children," said Tristani, speaking alongside U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), an original sponsor of the Children's Television Act, and U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (DIowa). "It also signals industry's plans and desire to have a free hand in how and how much they advertise to children over the digital spectrum."

The federal cases are still pending but, because the UCC fi led its action first, the U.S. Court of Appeals has agreed to hear arguments in the Sixth Circuit, instead of the corporations' much-preferred D.C. Circuit.

What if guidelines discarded?

The Rev. Robert Chase, OC, Inc.'s executive director, believes the networks preoccupation with profi ts is driving the networks' legal challenge, despite the best interests of kids.

In late September, Chase's assumption seemed underscored when broadcasters began arguing that the children's programming guidelines make it tough for them to air live sports telecasts on Saturdays, because the FCC's newest rules require children's programming to be scheduled and aired at consistent times, such as Saturday mornings, and interruptions could occur no more than 10 percent of the time.

"The cost of children's programming is a further loss," said CBS Executive Vice President Martin Franks, as reported in USA Today.

Chase believes the battle for children is shaping up to be the most significant media challenge mounted by the church in decades, perhaps since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. urged the UCC to take up the Jackson, Miss., civil rights case in 1959.

The UCC's current court battle has received coverage in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the Hollywood Reporter, among others.

"The current pressure on the FCC and the litigation in appellate federal courts from Disney, Viacom and others to reduce or eliminate provisions for children's educational programming is unabashedly profit-driven," Chase said. "If these guidelines — which have such widespread public support — are ignored or summarily dismissed, what will be next?"

Children still matter

Charren, now a grandmother to four "delicious" grandchildren, still believes it's paramount that the FCC continue to safeguard the interests of children. She hopes that the UCC will continue to hold the networks' feet to the fi re of the common good — especially since some of the industry's arguments never change.

For more than 35 years, Charren said, television executives have been complaining that children's programming is either too prevalent already, too costly, or too difficult to develop.

"The television industry would always say, 'We don't know what a children's educational program is' and I'd answer, 'If you don't know what a children's educational program is, then you should be in the shoe business.'"

Charren says she's grateful that the UCC continues to advocate for kids, and she believes it's something that UCC members can point to with pride.

"Any church should be helping improve the quality of life, not just for its members but for all human beings," she said. "Otherwise they're just talking to themselves."

In the past year alone, OC, Inc. has filed FCC license renewal challenges against four television stations (including a Spanish-language station) for failing to comply with existing children's television guidelines. Such actions, Chase said, send a strong message to broadcasters across the country that the UCC still cares about children's educational programming and that FCC guidelines must be taken seriously.

"The goal of business often interferes with choice and diversity, especially in broadcasting," Charren said. "I think it's important for a federal agency, like the FCC, to make sure that it's working right."

The Rev. J. Bennett Guess, at age 5, was the birthday guest on "The Peggy Mitchell Show," a local children's program — developed in response to the FCC's community- of-license guidelines — that aired daily on WEHT-TV in Evansville, Ind. When the station mistakenly aired the wrong show on Guess' birthday, it made up for the error with a special broadcast. Times have changed.

The UCC'S OC, Inc.

The Issues

The UCC's Office of Communication, Inc., founded in 1959, fights for media reform, corporate responsibility and public accountability. In the 1960s, when OC, Inc. was fighting to combat racism among Southern broadcasters, failures in the media to reflect viewers' needs and interests were blatant — wholesale news blackouts were frequent and faces of color were rarely seen.

Four decades later — after gaining an array of safeguards to protect the public's interest in media, and then largely losing these protections to the deregulatory biases of the 1980s and 90s — the pendulum has returned to where it began, with a renewed need to fight for media policies and practices that reflect the ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity of America.

From loosened ownership restrictions, weakened Equal Employment Opportunity rules, elimination of the minority tax certificate (which provided incentives for increasing minority- and woman-owned stations), delocalized news that relies on less community-based reporting, and brazenly commercialized children's programming, the challenge is daunting.

Increasingly, media speaks not to the public interest, but to the financial interests of its owners and advertisers.

The work

Enforcing corporate character. Public interest value, such as justice, equal opportunity and media access, are central in evaluating the public character of those who use public airwaves and provide telecommunications services.

Resisting media consolidation. The increasing number of media outlets owned by a single entity strikes a blow at diversity and localism.

Strengthening the grassroots. Participation is essential to maintaining the "public" in "public interest."

The record

Since 1959, the UCC's OC, Inc. has: Advocated for those historically excluded from the media, especially women and people of color; Sought to guarantee minimum hours of children's programming;

Defended the equal time rule for political candidates; Supported efforts to establish low-power, community-based FM radio;

Advocated for community-based programming and fair rates from cable providers;

Protected affordable access to emerging technologies and data transmission; and

Urged corporate character requirements for those who profi t from the public's airwaves. ucc.org/ocinc

Learn more

Two educational videos, "OC Inc: The Untold Story" and "LPFM: The People's Voice," are available for $19.99 each by calling 800-325-7061.

The UCC's Everett C. Parker Ethics in Telecommunications Lecture, held each year in mid-September in Washington, D.C., is attended by hundreds of media advocates and executives alike. Visit ucc.org/media-justice/parker-lecture/ for more information.

A special four-page reprint of this article, "Innocence lost: The battle over children's programming" is available in 50-count bulk quantities for $25 per bundle. Order from UCC Resources at 800-325-7061.

 

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CONTACT INFO

Rev. J. Bennett Guess
Executive Minister, Local Church Ministries
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland,Ohio 44115
216-736-3801
guessb@ucc.org