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The FCC Gives Teeth to the Children's Television Act of 1990

Children's Television Programming:
The FCC Gives Teeth to the Children's Television Act of 1990

It is difficult to think of an interest more substantial than the promotion of the welfare of children who watch so much television and rely upon it for so much of the information they receive.
-- Senate Report accompanying Children's Television Act of 1990

I. Introduction

On August 8, 1996, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a Report and Order detailing new rules regarding educational television for children. After years of debate, the FCC has decided on the regulations that will dictate broadcasters' obligations to provide TV shows that educate and inform children.

A. Children's Television Act of 1990

The Children's Television Act of 1990 (CTA) requires the FCC, in its review of each television broadcast license renewal application, to "consider the extent to which the licensee . . . has served the educational and informational needs of children through the licensee's overall programming, including programming specifically designed to serve such needs." Congress found that television has the power to teach children -- that "television can assist children to learn important information, skills, values, and behavior, while entertaining them and exciting their curiosity to learn about the world around them."1 Congress also found, however, that there are significant market disincentives for commercial broadcasters to air children's educational and informational programming.2

B. FCC Failure to Implement

In 1991, the FCC enacted regulations that required broadcasters to provide "some" educational programming. The FCC assessed compliance with this requirement in the 1991-1994 renewal cycle by examining the overall children's programming efforts of each licensee to ensure that they broadcast some standard-length programming specifically designed to serve the educational and informational needs of children. Licensees that aired at least one half-hour program per week received staff-level approval of the CTA portion of their renewal applications.3

Because of the imprecision in defining the scope of a broadcaster's obligation under the Children's Television Act, FCC rules have led to a variation in compliance efforts and confusion for concerned parents. Because they were so vague, these rules failed to adequately counterbalance the marketplace disincentives to provide this programming. Indeed, some broadcasters are carrying very little regularly scheduled standard length, children's educational programming. Some broadcasters claim to satisfy their statutory obligations with shows that, by any reasonable benchmark, cannot be said to be "specifically designed" to educate and inform children within the meaning of the CTA. And parents frequently lack timely access to information about availability.

C. Intention of the FCC's Report and Order

On August 8, the FCC adopted a number of proposals designed to provide better information to the public about the shows broadcasters air to fulfill their obligations under the CTA. Such information will assist parents who wish to guide their children's television viewing. The more parents use that information to choose educational programming for their children, the greater the likelihood that the market will respond with more educational programming. In addition, better information should help parents and others have an effective dialogue with broadcasters in their community about children's programming and, where appropriate, to urge programming improvements without resorting to government intervention. Parents play a key role in the success of these rules. The FCC relies on parents and other interested parties to continuely comment on the programming offered by broadcasters to fulfill these obligations. The Commission will ordinarily count on the good faith judgments of broadcasters as to whether programming complies with the new standard. The Commission will evaluate compliance of individual programs with the new definition only as a last resort.

The FCC adopted a definition of programming "specifically designed" to educate and inform children (or "core" programming) that provides clearer guidance to broadcasters concerning programming that fulfills their statutory obligation. In order to qualify as core programming, a show must aim to serve the educational and informational needs of children.

The new definition of core programming includes other elements. A core program must be a regularly scheduled, weekly program of at least 30 minutes aired between 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. The program must also be identified as educational and informational for children when it is aired and must be listed in the children's programming report placed in the broadcaster's public inspection file.

The FCC also adopted a processing guideline that will provide certainty for broadcasters about how to comply with the CTA. As described more fully below, under this guideline, broadcasters will receive staff-level approval of the CTA portion of their renewal applications if they air three hours per week of core programming or if, while providing somewhat less than three hours per week of core programming, they air a package of programming that demonstrates a level of commitment to educating and informing children that is at least equivalent to airing three hours per week of core programming. Broadcasters that do not meet this guideline will be referred to the full Commission for consideration, where they will have an opportunity to demonstrate compliance with the CTA, including efforts other than "core" programming and nonbroadcast efforts.4

II. Background

A. The Importance of Children's Educational Television Programming

1. The affect of educational programming.

Congress and the FCC have recognized that television can benefit society by helping to educate and inform our children. In enacting the CTA, Congress cited research demonstrating that television programs designed to teach children specific skills are effective. In its Report and Order, the FCC also sited recent research on the importance of children's educational television:

A recent study published by the Department of Education concluded that "contrary to popular assertions, children are cognitively active during television and attempt to form a coherent connected understanding of television programs."5

Children who watch "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and "Sesame Street" have been shown to learn task persistence, imaginative play, and letter and number skills.6

Children who watch "Barney" showed greater counting skills, knowledge of colors and shapes, vocabulary, and social skills, than children who did not watch the program.7

A study conducted by Dr. Aletha Huston and Dr. John Wright, co-directors of the Center for Research on the Influences of Television on Children at the University of Kansas, demonstrated that children from low- and moderate- income families who frequently watch "Sesame Street" and other educational programs from ages 2 to 4 performed better on vocabulary, school readiness, pre-reading, and math tests than non-viewers as much as three years later.8 These differences occurred even when results were controlled for initial language skill and qualities of family and home environment.9

A recent study performed by Westat, Inc. showed that preschoolers from low-income families who watch "Sesame Street" demonstrated more advanced literacy and numeracy skills than their counterparts who did not watch the program.10

2. The reach of television.

That television has the power to teach is important because nearly all American children have access to television and spend considerable time watching it. Recent data show that television reaches 98 percent of all American homes, including well over 90 percent of households with annual incomes below $5,000.11 Data also show that children from ages 2 to 17 watch on average more than 3 hours of television each day.12

Television reaches children earlier and for more hours per day than any other educational influence except perhaps family.13

Many children watch television before they are exposed to any formal education.14

Nearly 70 percent of day-care facilities have a television on for several hours each day.15

By the time most American children begin the first grade, they will have spent the equivalent of three school years in front of the television set.16

The significance of over-the-air television for children is reinforced by the fact that fewer children have access to cable television than to over-the-air television. To contradict claims that cable television will fulfill the needs of children's programming, the FCC includes some telling statistics on access to these non-broadcast stations:

37 percent of children from ages 2 to 11 live in homes that are not connected to cable television.17

38 percent of children from ages 12 to 17 live in homes that are not connected to cable


While about 75 percent of consumer households with incomes of $70,000 and over subscribe to cable television, only about 36 percent of consumer households with incomes less than $5,000 subscribe to cable.19

The proper focus in this proceeding is on the provision of children's educational programming by broadcast stations, not by cable systems and other subscription services such as direct broadcast satellite systems that require the payment of a subscription fee. If these subscription-based services are the only source for educational television, many poor children wouldn't get it.

The CTA itself expressly focuses on broadcast licensees. In enacting this statute, Congress found that, as part of their public interest obligations, "television station operators and licensees should provide programming that serves the special needs of children,"20 and the Act applies only to television broadcast stations.21 Thus, the statute focuses on the provision of children's educational programming through broadcasting, a ubiquitous service, which may be the only source of video programming for some families that cannot afford, or do not have access to, cable or other subscription services.22 While noting an increase in the number of nonbroadcast outlets available for children to receive video programming, the House Report states that "the new marketplace for video programming does not obviate the public interest responsibility of individual broadcast licensees to serve the child audience."23

3. The appeal of educational programming

Studies that show that, where educational programming is available, a large percentage of children watch.

A Westat study found that the majority of young children in all demographic groups watch "Sesame Street."24

A study submitted by CTW suggests that children do not distinguish between educational and non-educational programming, and that they do not find educational programming less appealing.25

CTW noted that quality programming specifically designed to meet children's educational and informational needs can attract sizeable audiences, as evidenced by "Sesame Street" and "Ghostwriter."26

B. The Supply of Children's Educational Television Programming

1. Small Children's Market

A number of factors explain the marketplace constraints on providing children's educational programming. Over-the-air commercial broadcast television stations earn their revenues from the sale of advertising time. Revenues received from the sale of advertising depend on the size and the socio-demographic characteristics of the audience reached by the broadcaster's programming.27 Broadcasters thus have a reduced economic incentive to promote children's programming because children's television audiences are smaller than general audiences.

Educational programming generally must be targeted at segments of the child audience.28 An educational program for children aged 2-5 may be of little interest to children aged 6-11 or children aged 12-17.29 By contrast, an entertainment program for children is more likely to appeal to a broader range of children.30 Thus the market for children's educational television may be segmented by age in ways that do not characterize children's entertainment programming or adult programming. Additionally, the adult audience is much larger than the child audience.31 Because the adult audience is so much larger than the children's audience, the potential advertising revenues are also much larger and therefore provide broadcasters with an incentive to focus on adult programming rather than children's educational television programming. And within the category of children's programming, broadcasters have an economic incentive to select entertainment programs that appeal to a broader range of children rather than educational programs that appeal to a narrower group.

In other retail markets, consumers can demonstrate the intensity of their preferences by the amount of money they spend, i.e., their dollar "votes." However, broadcasting rating services basically register only one "vote" per viewer.32 But the signal that matters to the broadcaster is the dollar amount of advertising revenues. Small audiences with little buying power, such as children's educational television audiences, are unlikely to be able to signal the intensity of their demand for such programming in the broadcasting market. Therefore, broadcasters will have little incentive to provide such programming because the small audiences and small resulting advertising revenues means that there will be a substantial cost to them (the so-called "opportunity cost") of forgoing larger revenues from other types of programs not shown.33

2. Current approximations of available programming

Dr. Dale Kunkel of the University of California, Santa Barbara examined 48 randomly selected license renewal applications filed in 1994. The study found that some stations apparently aired little or no programming specifically designed to serve children's educational needs.

-Four stations (8.3 percent) in the Kunkel study did not claim to air any such programming.

-Eleven stations (23 percent) reported airing one hour or less of such programming per week.

-Sixteen stations (33 percent) reported airing 1.5 hours or less of such programming per week.

-Twenty-five stations (52 percent) reported airing two hours or less of such programming per week.

Dr. Kunkel characterized as "frivolous" some broadcasters' claims that certain programs are educational.34 The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) defines children's educational television as "programming originally produced and broadcast for an audience of children 16 years of age and younger which serves their cognitive/intellectual or social/emotional needs." As examples of shows that fall within the NAB defintion, Dr. Kunkel points to "America's Funniest Home Videos," "Biker Mice from Mars," "Bugs and Friends," "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," "Woody Woodpecker," "X-Men," and "Yogi Bear."

III. Public Information Initiatives

Congress passed the Children's Television Act to enhance parents' knowledge of children's educational programming. One way to encourage licensees to provide such programming is to encourage and enable the public, especially parents, to interact with broadcasters. Parents can increase the audience of an educational program by encouraging their children to watch the show, but can only do so if they know in advance when the show will air and that the show is educational. Access to information can also facilitate viewer campaigns and other community-based efforts to influence stations to air more and better educational programming.

The FCC focuses on three basic methods to improve the public's access to information: 1. On-air Identification. Commercial broadcasters will have to identify core programming at the time those programs are aired in a form that is at the sole discretion of the licensee. An on-air identification requirement will make broadcasters more accountable to the public. Some commenters speculated that on-air identifiers could deter children from watching educational programs. No commenter, however, presented evidence that such an effect will occur. 2. Program Guides. Commercial broadcasters will have to identify educational programs to publishers of program guides. The information provided is to include identifation of core programs, the age group for which the program is intended as well as:

-i. Children's liaison. The FCC is requiring licensees to designate a liaison for children's programming and to include the name and method of contacting that individual in the station's children's programming reports, since someone at each station must, as a practical matter, be responsible for carrying out the broadcaster's responsibilities under the CTA.

-ii. Explanation of how programming meets definition of core programming. The FCC is requiring licensees to provide a brief explanation in their children's programming reports of how particular programs meet the definition of "core" programming.

3. Publicizing children's programming reports. Commercial broadcasters will have to provide improved access to information to the public through standardized reporting and other means.35

IV. Definition Of Programming "Specifically Designed" To Serve Children's Educational And Informational Needs

Programming specifically designed to meet the educational and informational needs of children was the only category of programming that the CTA specifically requires every licensee to provide.

By more precisely defining "specifically designed" programming, the FCC increases the likelihood that such programs will be aired. The specific elements of the new definition of core programming include:

1. Significant Purpose. Education need not be the only purpose, but must be more than an incidental goal.

2. Educational and Informational Objective and Target Child Audience Specified in Writing. Commercial broadcasters must provide the educational and informational objective of core programming in writing. The report will indicate a specific target age group for core programs.

3. Times Core Programming May Be Aired. To qualify as core, a program must air between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. In specifying this time period, the FCC's intention is to encourage broadcasters to air educational programming at times the maximum number of child viewers will be watching.36 Despite the relatively small percentage of children in the audience prior to 7:00 a.m. as compared to after that hour, a number of studies confirm that broadcasters currently air a significant percentage of their educational programming before 7:00 a.m.

4. Regularly Scheduled. Qualifying core programming must be regularly scheduled to aid the flow of information to parents through published program guides. Programming that is aired on a regular basis is more easily anticipated and located by viewers, and can build loyalty that will improve its chance for commercial success. To count as regularly scheduled programming, programs must be scheduled to air at least once a week. Regularly scheduled weekly programming is the dominant form of television programming. It is more likely to be anticipated by parents and children, to develop audience loyalty, and to build successfully upon and reinforce educational and informational messages.

5. Substantial Length. Core programming will be at least 30 minutes in length. Programs in this standard format are more likely than shorter programming to be regularly scheduled and to be listed in program guides, and thus are easier for parents to identify for their child's viewing. In addition, programs that are 30 minutes or longer allow more time for educational and informational material to be presented. There was no evidence presented in response to the NPRM to support claims by some parties that children have short attention spans and thus will not benefit from substantial length programming.37 Researchers Aletha Huston and John Wright agreed that 15 or 30-minute programs are more effective than short segments because they provide more content, allow the development of a theme, and permit educational messages to be told in story form.38

V. Effective Dates and Transition Period

These rules regarding on-air identification, program guides, public file, and reporting requirements will become effective on January 2, 1997. The FCC will begin to evaluate compliance with these requirements in renewal applications filed after that date.


1. 47 U.S.C. 303a note. See also S. Rep. No. 227, 101st Cong.,1st Sess. 5-9 (1989) ("Senate Report").
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2. Senate Report at 9.
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3. In some cases, it was not clear that broadcasters had provided even one half-hour program per week of programming specifically designed to educate and inform children. In instances where no programming was shown, FCC staff contacted the stations. If a showing was made that the station had purchased children's educational programming and therefore would be increasing the amount of children's educational programming broadcast in the future, and the licensee's operations otherwise complied with FCC rules, renewal was granted.
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4. See 47 U.S.C. 303b(b) (providing that, in addition to considering educational and informational programming aired on the licensee's station, the Commission may consider "any special nonbroadcast efforts" by the licensee to enhance the value of such programming, and "any special efforts" by the licensee to sponsor programming on another station in its market).
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5. See Daniel Anderson, The Impact on Children's Education: Television's Influence on Cognitive Development, U.S. Department of Education, Working Paper No. 2, April 1988; see also S. Hrg 101-69, April 12, 1989 (testimony of Daniel Anderson).
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6. See Senate Report at 5; see also S. Rep. No. 797, 101st Cong., 1st Sess. 4 (1989) (Senate Report accompanying National Endowment for Children's Educational Television Act -- referred to herein as "Endowment Report").
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7. Jerome Singer, Ph.D. and Dorothy Singer, Ed.D., "Barney & Friends as Education and Entertainment," Feb. 25, 1994, at 21, 31.
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8. See Aletha C. Huston and John C. Wright ("Houston" and "Wright" ) Comments at 3. A complete copy of this study was submitted as Attachment 1 to the comments filed by the Children's Television Workshop (CTW).
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9. Id. This study also showed that children ages 6-7 who regularly watched children's educational programs performed better on tests of reading comprehension and in-school adjustment than other children. In addition, children who watched shows such as "Sesame Street" spent less time watching cartoons than other children, and more time reading and engaged in educational activities. See CTW Comments, Attachment 1 (Huston & Wright study) at 1-2.
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10. See CTW Comments, Attachment 2 at 20. Other commenters stated that educational programming is especially valuable to minority and low income children because they spend more time watching television and do not have access to as many alternative sources of education. They also stated that the availability of new technologies does not eradicate the need for educational programming on commercial stations because lower income children are less likely to have access to these alternative technologies. See Comments of the Center for Media Education (filed jointly with 19 other parties including Peggy Charren, the American Psychiatric Association, the Consumer Federation of America, the National Education Association, and the National Parent Teacher Association ("CME et al.")) at 22-24; Arthur D. Sheekey ("Sheekey") Comments at 2.

We noted in the NPRM that we were aware as well that some researchers have questioned the "learning gain" of children who watch "Sesame Street." NPRM, 10 FCC Rcd at 6313 n.14 (citing Sorry, Ernie. TV Isn't Teaching, New York Times, November 12, 1994). Nonetheless, we also noted that, based on other studies and evidence, Congress has determined that children benefit in important ways from viewing educational and informational programming. Id. at 6313 n.14.
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11. Endowment Report at 12. According to the Department of Commerce, more homes have television than have indoor plumbing. Id.
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12. Television Audience 1993 at 14, Nielsen Media Research, 1993.
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13. Huston & Wright Comments at 3. One researcher's estimate of the amount of time pre-schoolers spend watching television ranged from 13.3 to 27.8 hours/week. See Anderson, supra n.10, at 12-13.
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14. Senate Report at 5. At peak viewing hours, more than 20 percent of children ages 2 to 5 are watching television.
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15. Minow and LaMay Comments at 19 (citing "Television Usage in Child Care Centers," Statistical Research, Inc., May 1994).
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16. Minow and LaMay Comments at 18. See also Anderson, supra n.10, at 12-13.
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17. Nielsen Universe Estimates for January 1, 1996, Nielsen Media Research, 1996. This compares to 34 percent of U.S. households not connected to cable. Id.
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18. Ibid.
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19. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Consumer Expenditure Surveys, Table 2, Income Before Taxes, Interview Survey, 1994, 36.
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20. 47 U.S.C. 303a (emphasis added).
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21. Id. at 303b(a).
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22. See paragraph 11 supra.
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23. House Report at 6.
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24. CTW Comments, Attachment 2 at 5. According to CTW, "Sesame Street" is watched by close to 90% of children prior to beginning school, including children from all ethnic groups and socioeconomic strata. Id.
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25. See Shalom M. Fisch, William Yotive, Susan K. McCann, M. Scott Garner, and Lisa Chen, "Science on Saturday Morning: Children's perceptions of science in educational and non-educational cartoons," October 1995, CTW Comments, Attachment 3 at 15.
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26. CTW Comments at 5.
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27. B. Watkins, Improving Educational and Informational Television For Children: When the Marketplace Fails, 5 Yale Law and Policy Rev. 361 (1987).
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28. See CME et al. Comments at 8.
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29. These are the age categories for children used by Nielsen in reporting audience ratings. See Huston & Wright Comments at 4-5.
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30. Nielsen data indicate that children ages 6 to 11 are much more likely to watch general audience or adult-oriented entertainment programs than they are to watch children's programs. Moreover, when asked to name their favorite programs, children ages 10 to 17 were much more likely to include adult-oriented or general audience programs than child-specific shows. The State of Children's Television: An Examination of Quantity, Quality, and Industry Beliefs, conducted by Amy B. Jordan for the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania under the Direction of Kathleen Hall Jamieson, June 17, 1996, citing Nielsen Media Research, March, 1996.
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31. There are 59.5 million children in the television audience: 16.0 million children aged 2-5, 22.2 million aged 6-11, and 21.3 million children aged 12-17. Adults aged 18-49 number 122.2 million. (See Nielsen Estimated Persons in TV Households, January 1995.)
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32. See B. Owen and S. Wildman, Video Economics 97, 148 (1992); R. Noll, M. Peck and J. McGowan, Economic Aspects of Television Regulation 32 (1973).
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33. We recognize that in some instances viewers have been able effectively to communicate their displeasure with certain programs by way of boycotts. But we are unfamiliar with examples where a boycott has been equally effective in convincing broadcasters to provide more programming of a particular type.
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34. Kunkel Comments at 1-4 & attachments.
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35. Noncommercial television licensees are exempted from children's programming reporting requirements.
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36. With respect to the morning time limit, recent data show that during four sample weeks in November 1995, less than 5 percent of children 2 to 17 nationwide were watching television at 6:00 a.m. Monday through Friday, and less than 10 percent of this age group was in the audience at 6:30 a.m. By 7:00 a.m., however, between 12.5 percent and 14 percent of children 2 to 11 were watching television, and by 8:00 a.m. more than 20 percent of children 2 to 5, close to 12 percent of children 6 to 8, and just under 9 percent of children 9 to 11, were in the audience. Thus, at 7:00 a.m. Monday through Friday, nearly four times as many young children are watching television than at 6:00 a.m. In other words, at 6:00 a.m. on weekdays, 1.3 million children are watching television. By 7:00 a.m., the number of children watching television is 5.1 million. Data also show that roughly as many (i.e., very few) young children are watching television at 6:00 a.m. as are watching at midnight. With respect to weekend viewing, the same data show that less than 4 percent of children 2 to 17 were watching television from 6:00 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. on Saturday. By 7:00 a.m. on Saturday, however, the percentage of children 2 to 11 in the audience had risen to between about 5 percent and 7 percent, and continued to increase sharply to about 16 percent or more by 8:00 a.m. Figures for Sunday showed a comparable low rate of viewership for all children prior to 7:00 a.m. followed by a sharp increase between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. for children 2 to 11.

Morning viewing for teens 12 to 17 peaks earlier Monday through Friday than for younger children, presumably because these children are all in school and leave for school earlier than younger school-aged children. For teens 12 to 14, morning viewing peaks at 7:00 a.m. at close to 10 percent, and then declines to 5 percent by 8:00 a.m. For older teens 15 to 17, morning viewing peaks at 6:30 a.m., and then declines gradually to approximately 3 to 4 percent by 8:00 a.m. In view of the significantly higher level of viewership among younger children between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m., and the comparatively level rate of viewership among teens over the 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. period, we believe that a morning time frame of 7:00 a.m. is appropriate. See A.C. Nielsen, National Audience Demographics, Vol. 1, 1995.

For teens 12 to 17, viewership also increases from 7:00 a.m. To 8:00 a.m. On Saturday and Sunday, albeit at a less marked rate than for younger children.
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37. To the contrary, Dale Kunkel submitted comments stating that there is no scientific basis upon which to assert that children have inherently short attention spans in their processing of television content. Kunkel Comments at 10-11.
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38. See Huston and Wright Comments at 6-7. These commenters cited research that shows that, for children older than 5 or 6, programs that convey educational messages in story form are more effective than programs that move quickly from one idea to another.
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