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Only 1 in 8 Children's Educational TV Programs Meet High Quality Standards, According to New Study by Children Now

Nov 12, 2008

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A new study by Children Now reveals substantial deficiencies in children’s educational television programming and raises serious doubts about broadcasters’ commitments to the nation’s children. The study, entitled Educationally/Insufficient? An Analysis of the Availability & Educational Quality of Children’s E/I Programming, evaluated the quality of programs claimed as educational/informational (E/I) by commercial stations, and found that only one of every eight E/I shows (13%) is rated as “highly educational.” In contrast, almost twice as many, nearly one of every four (23%) were classified in the lowest category of “minimally educational.” Most E/I programs (63%) were judged to be “moderately educational.”

Media researchers Dr. Barbara J. Wilson (University of Illinois), Dr. Dale Kunkel (University of Arizona) and Kristin L. Drogos (University of Illinois) analyzed a total of 120 episodes across 40 program titles, evaluating each show on a range of educational criteria that are associated with children’s learning from television. Their findings indicate that most programs designated as E/I offer only limited educational value for child viewers.

The study summarizes the issues: “When only one in eight E/I episodes is highly educational and nearly twice as many are deficient in educational merits; when few broadcasters offer more than the bare minimum of programming and confine their entire E/I schedule to one or two days of the week; when more than one-quarter of E/I shows model harmful violent or socially aggressive behavior; and when the vast majority of programs contain no basic academic or health-related lesson, it is difficult to see how broadcasters’ efforts are sufficiently serving the educational needs of the nation’s children.”

“This evidence suggests that the nation’s children are being short-changed by broadcasters,” said Christy Glaubke, director of Children Now’s Children & the Media program. “This is clearly a missed opportunity to help support the educational development of the nation’s children.”

Commercial television broadcasters are required by law to air children’s E/I programming as part of their public service obligations in return for the free use of publicly-owned airwaves. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) enforces this requirement and has specified that each station should air a minimum of three hours per week of children’s educational programming.

The new study reveals that the large majority of stations (59%) deliver only the minimum required amount, with just 3 percent of stations nationally offering more than four hours per week. Furthermore, 75 percent of stations schedule E/I programming exclusively on weekends, despite the fact that children watch an average of three hours of television per day every day of the week.

“Our study indicates that children’s educational programming on commercial television is disappointing from a quantity and a quality perspective,” said Dr. Barbara Wilson, senior author of the research.

Previous studies in the 1990s found that between 20 percent and 33 percent of E/I programs were rated as “highly educational.” Thus, the new data suggest that educational quality is at the lowest point yet measured for E/I shows aired on commercial channels.

In contrast, the educational programming delivered by PBS was rated significantly higher (receiving an average quality rating of 9.1 on a 12-point scale) than were E/I shows on commercial stations (which received a 7.9 average score). Another important difference is that PBS programs tended to emphasize cognitive-intellectual lessons in their educational fare (55% of programs), whereas commercial channels relied largely on social-emotional lessons (67% of programs), such as sharing or getting along with others, as their educational substance.

“With ample models for success on public and commercial television, the mystery is why so many children’s programs are still so weak at conveying educational messages,” said Dr. Dale Kunkel, co-author of the study.

The report is being released today at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Federal Communications Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein will offer remarks on the policy implications of the research and a panel of media industry, academic and advocacy experts will also discuss the findings.

“Educationally/Insufficient” is the first study of its kind in eight years to examine the broadcast industry’s compliance with FCC guidelines.

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