Children's Television Act

Children's Television Act

The Children's Television Act was enacted in 1990 in the United States to enhance television's potential to teach the nation's children valuable information and skills. The Act requires each full-service television station that offers children's television programming in the U.S. to serve the educational and informational needs of children through its overall television programming, including programming specifically designed to serve these needs (or "core" educational programming). In August 1996, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted new rules to strengthen the enforcement of this statutory mandate.[1][2] These new rules were:

  • Adopt several public information initiatives designed to give parents greater information about the core educational programs being aired by TV stations (these initiatives are explained in greater detail below).[1][2]
  • Set forth a clear definition of what type of programs qualify as core programs: they generally must have serving the educational and informational needs of children as a significant purpose; be aired between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.; be a regularly scheduled weekly program; and be at least 30 minutes in length.[1][2]
  • Establish a guideline that calls for every full-service TV station to air at least three hours per week of core educational programming.[1][2]

A central goal of the FCC's new rules is to provide parents and other members of the public with greater information about educational television programs. This will help parents guide their children's television viewing and also encourage an ongoing dialogue between the public and TV stations about TV station performance under the Children's Television Act. To help accomplish this, the FCC's new rules require commercial television stations to identify core educational programs at the beginning of the program (such as with a verbal announcement or an icon), and to provide information identifying these programs to publishers of program guides and TV listings.

The rules also require commercial full-service TV stations to complete quarterly reports regarding their educational programming and to make these reports available to the public via their studios, public libraries, and/or the station's website.

The FCC's rules require stations to complete a Children's Television Programming Report (Form 398) every quarter.


History of children's television regulation

Concern over the impact that television had on children began when television was still a new medium for media. During the 1950s, many individuals, particularly parents, asked their legislators to do something about the potentially harmful effects of television viewing on young people. There has been academic research that has been initiated since this time to monitor, analyze and explain the relationships between television and children.

The first attempt to address these concerns were during Congressional hearings in 1952 that addressed violence. Besides the Congress, there were government commissions that also pursued this agenda. Included in these discussions were the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission and advocacy groups formed by concerned citizens. The FCC intended to change a number of policies regarding children's programming, but no serious action took place until the enactment of the Children's Television Act in 1990. [3]


The Children's Television Act was written to enhance television for young viewers. Some research reveals some downsides to the act. For example, after the act was passed, although there was more programming geared towards children, stations actually provided less diverse educational shows than it had been before. [4] To prevent this problem, the FCC required stations to keep logs that described in detail why the shows were educational or informational. However, many stations failed to keep these records or have any method for accurate recording. More than 25 percent of stations failed to record the time, date, or length of programming. The FCC did little to regulate these logs up until 1993, but later on, came up with certain rules and regulation like the Safe harbor in order to regulate contents for younger audience. [5] Another downside was Congress provided little direction towards the implementation of the act, only saying that programming had to be specifically designed to serve the educational and informational needs of children.[6] According to a 1998 Annenberg Foundation report, the number of television network shows labeled 'highly educational' dropped form 43 percent to 29 percent since the enactment of the act. A research report from Georgetown University said that one issue contributing to this was educational television programming was defined too broadly. For example, programming that was only academic or that covered pro-social issues counted towards stations requirements. Another issue was that traditional ideas of what should be taught to children, such as the alphabet or number systems were lost. An increase in shows focusing on social issues were aired. Writers 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 exemption to this rule is The Magic School Bus, because it combined effective writing and education for children. [7] Another result revealed in the report was that as a result of the act, many of the local broadcasting stations dropped their locally produced educational shows and bought blocks of pre-produced children shows from the bigger networks. [8] This was largely due to the fact that the rules in the act stated that stations only had to meet the requirement of a minimum of three hours a week of educational programming. Many of the local stations thought in terms of profits and eliminated their own shows, which were more educational than the syndicated ones, to save money and still meet the minimum requirements for re-licensing.[9]

Programming for profit

A report by Scott Conley showed that the average child has watched between 10,000 and 15,000 hours of television, and over 200,000 commercials by the time they are 18. His research showed that commercials typically were for the interest of advertisers and had no concern for the needs of children. [10]

According to the act, commercials had to be geared towards children 12 years of age or younger. No more than 10.5 minutes on weekends, and 12 minutes during the week were allowed per hour on the air. Cable systems were required to keep records of their following of this rule so that regulators, such as the FCC and the public, were allowed to monitor their behavior.[11] The main reason for this restriction was that research demonstrated that young children have difficulty distinguishing between the program they are watching and commercials, most have little or no understanding of commercials' persuasive intent, and that this makes children highly vulnerable to claims and appeals by advertisers.[12] Food commercials make up a large percentage of advertisements geared towards children. Marketers are interested in youth as consumers because of their spending power through their parents, their influence, and as adult consumers in the future. Many techniques and channels are used to reach youth, starting when they are toddlers, in order to establish brand building and purchasing behavior. [13]

One study found food advertisements accounted for 47.8% of commercials. These advertisements advertised foods that were high in fat and sugar. Compared with data collected before new regulations took place, children now watch more commercials of a shorter length. [14]

Other actions networks took to increase their profit while implementing the act was that some networks chose to select programs for their marketing value. Producers selected series more often when they were related to a hit movie or pop culture icon, such as if the show featured a character that could be sold as a marketable action figure. [15]

A researcher for the popular children's show Dora the Explorer discusses how preschoolers interact with new episodes of the show. For example, researchers try to to determine whether children are paying attention or interacting with the screen. They try to figure out what draws kids attention to the show, and what elements can be adjusted to increased the potential viewership. Things such as adding more close ups of the main characters, called 'money shots', are intended to embed the face into children's minds. This can increase product sales. Shows such as Dora sell millions of dollars of products a year, from dolls to sleeping bags, so researchers highly value this information. [16]

According to Judi Cook, an assistant professor at Salem University, there were issues with the amount of children's commercials for these marketable products that were aired in the Boston market. She watched the programming on one of the stations for a day, and learned that 80 out of 97 advertisements appeared before or after children's programming. [17]

Recent changes to the act

In 2006, the FCC decided on rules related to the display of websites during children's programming. Under the guidelines, there were a number of criteria that the website must meet. One is that it offered non-commercial related content. Also, the page has to clearly divide into sections commercial and non-commercial content. Thirdly, the website directed to can not be used for e-commerce, advertising or other commercial advertising. Finally, if a site was advertising characters from a show that was airing alongside it, the display of this website address was prohibited. [18]

The Academy of Political and Social Science found in a report covering the current state of children's television broadcasts between 1996 and 1997 that only 38.8 percent of programming could be considered 'high-quality'. A quarter, or 23.2 percent were found to be 'moderate' quality. A whole 37 percent of programs were found to be low quality. The research on programming quality took into account both educational content of shows and also the reactions of the children and their parents. [19]

At the Senate Commerce Committee hearing in July of 2009, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski spoke about the new landscape of video broadcasting and television. He recommended empowering parents with tools and information to determine the appropriate video content for their children rather than government regulation of video content.

At the same hearing, James P. Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, a non-partisan, not-for profit organization that advocates for educational children’s media content, said there were ways to regulate children’s media content without limiting broadcasters rights to free speech. [20]

U.S. television networks broadcasting children's programming

In American television, an "E/I" Digital on-screen graphic or bug is placed in a corner of the screen indicating a children's television program that meets federal educational and informational guidelines.

Past television networks broadcasting children's programming


  1. ^ a b c d Mifflin, Lawrie (August 9, 1996). "U.S. Mandates Educational TV for Children". The New York Times: p. 16. Retrieved 14 March 2010. 
  2. ^ a b c d "Quality Television for Children". The New York Times: p. 32. August 16, 1996. Retrieved 14 March 2010. 
  3. ^ Wells, Landrea. "Children and Television". Retrieved 11 April 2011. 
  4. ^ Wharton, Dennis (October 30, 1995). "NAB, FCC Square Off Over Kidvid". Variety (13): 183. 
  5. ^ Hayes, Diane (2008 12 September). The Children's Hour Revisited: The Children's Television Act of 1990. 46. 
  6. ^ Levinsky, Andy (November/December 1999). "Unintended Consequences". The Humanist 59 (6): 3. 
  7. ^ Calvert, Sandra; Kotler, Jennifer (2003). "Children's Television Act: Can Policy Make a Difference". Applied Developmental Psychology (24): 375–380. 
  8. ^ Levinsky, Andy (November/December 1999). "Unintended Consequences". The Humanist 59 (6): 4. 
  9. ^ Levinsky, Andy (November/December 1999). "Unintended Consequences". The Humanist 59 (6): 5. 
  10. ^ Conley, Scott (17 June 2010). "The Children's Television Act: Reasons and Practice". Syracuse Law Review. 
  11. ^ Federal Com. "General Cable Television Industry and Regulation information Factsheet". Retrieved 10 April 2011. 
  12. ^ Kunkal, Dale; Roberts, Donald (14 April 2010). "Young Minds and Marketplace Values: Issues in Children's Television Advertising". Social Issues 47 (1): 57–72. 
  13. ^ French, Simone; Story, Mary (February 2004). "Food Advertising and Marketing Directed at Children and Adolescents in the US". International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 1 (3). doi:10.1186/1479-5868-1-3. 
  14. ^ Taras, Howard L. (1995). "Advertised Foods on Children's Television". Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 149 (6): 649–652. 
  15. ^ Levinsky, Andy (November/December 1999). "Unintended Consequences". The Humanist 59 (6): 6. 
  16. ^ McGinn, Daniel. "Guilt Free TV". Retrieved 11 April 2011. 
  17. ^ Jessell, Harry (November, 06 2000). "Commercial Overload". Broadcasting and Cable 130 (46): 19. 
  18. ^ "The Children's Television Act of 1990".'s_Television_Act_of_1990. Retrieved 10 April 2011. 
  19. ^ Jordan, Amy; IV Woodard, Emory (May 1998). "Growing Pains: Children's Television in the New Regulatory Environment". Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 557: 83–95. 
  20. ^ Vee, Dr.. "The Children’s Television Act 1990-2010". 
  21. ^ "Dora the Explorer". Retrieved 11 April 2011. 
  22. ^ "Yo Gabba Gabba!". Retrieved 11 April 2011. 
  23. ^ "Dinosaur Train". Retrieved 11 April 2011. 
  24. ^ "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse". Retrieved 11 April 2011. 
  25. ^ "Thomas and Friends". Retrieved 11 April 2011. 
  26. ^ "Handy Manny". Retrieved 11 April 2011. 

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