It is well established that quality educational television programming can have significant positive effects on young viewers’ cognitive and social development. This evidence prompted Congress to enact the Children’s Television Act of 1990 (CTA) to ensure that commercial broadcast television stations provide programming “specifically designed” to serve the educational needs of children in return for the free use of the publicly-owned airwaves.
Congress passed the CTA with the intention of increasing the availability of high-quality educational programs, such as PBS’s Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, on commercial broadcast television. Since its inception, however, broadcasters have interpreted the CTA in various, and sometimes disappointing, ways. For example, some stations in the early 1990s infamously claimed that broadcasts of The Flintstones and The Jetsons counted as educational programming by teaching children about history and the future, respectively.
Such practices led the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to clarify its definition of educational programming, specifying that such shows must (a) have education as a significant purpose; (b) have a specified learning goal and target audience; (c) be aired on a regular schedule between 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.; and (d) be labeled as “E/I” to identify the program to the public as educational/informational for children. In addition, the FCC decided that stations should generally air at least three hours per week of E/I programming, a policy often referred to as the Three Hour Rule.
When analog television transitioned to a digital format, broadcasters gained the ablity to “simulcast” up to six unique digital stations for every existing analog one. As a result of Children Now’s work, the FCC passed additional rules in 2006 requiring broadcasters to include three hours per week of education/informational (“E/I”) programming on each of their digital television stations. This ruling will dramatically increase (by up to six times) the amount of such programming available to children on free, over-the-air television. This victory resulted from a six-year advocacy effort by Children Now and our partners.
But this increase in quantity will only benefit children if the quality of the programs is high as well.
In 2008, Children Now completed the needed study examining the educational value of current children’s shows that are defined as “E /I” (Educational/Informational) by broadcasters.
This study was undertaken to assess broadcasters’ compliance with the CTA and to evaluate the industry’s overall performance in serving the needs of their child audience. Commissioned by Children Now and conducted by leading media scholars, Dr. Dale Kunkel (University of Arizona) and Dr. Barbara Wilson (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign), the research examines the quantity of E/I programming offered on commercial broadcast stations and evaluates the educational quality of the 30 most widely viewed children’s educational programs. In order to provide a valuable comparison to help judge the efficacy of these shows, a sample of ten children’s programs on PBS was also evaluated.
Only 1 in 8 Children’s Educational TV Programs Meet High Quality Standards
Among other critical findings, the study found that only one of every eight E/I shows (13%) to be “highly educational.” In contrast, almost twice as many, nearly one of every four (23%) were classified in the lowest category of “minimally educational.” This is the first study of its kind in eight years, and it revealed a substantial decline in the percentage of highly educational programming over that time.
Figure: Quality of E/I Episodes on Commercial Channels Over Time
(Click to enlarge image)
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.”
We hope this study not only will serve as a new benchmark of broadcasters’ compliance with the CTA as we head into the era of digital television, but that it also will inspire federal policy makers, the media industry and parents to ensure that all children have access to quality educational television programs.