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As any parent can tell you, high-quality children's programming is critical in today's media world.  Making sure that television is appropriate for our children to watch is a struggle that many families face and an issue before policymakers.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has the authority to regulate commercial broadcasters and set rules to ensure better children's programming. Congress has stepped up its role in the process of regulating what children see on local TV broadcasts and, to a limited extent, cable television and parents have the technological ability to monitor and block certain objectionable programming.  Numerous activists and organizations across the country are also involved in the effort to improve children's television.

The FCC Steps Up Requirements

In 1996, the FCC and Congress strengthened existing rules to require television broadcasters to provide three hours of children's educational broadcasting each week. The FCC has resources that can help you locate educational programs. Another important regulation, which is often overlooked, is that every channel -- cable and broadcast included -- must limit advertising during shows targeted to children to 10 ˝ minutes per hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays.

Broadcast and cable channels are also prohibited from promoting products featuring characters from the shows they air.  In other words, an episode of "Blue's Clues" can't contain commercials for Blue's Clues toys.  Sometimes broadcasters don't abide by these important rules.

FCC Fines for Advertising Violations

For example, over the course of one ten-month period, Nickelodeon violated both the advertisement time limits and the cross promotion regulations almost 750 times.  In October 2004, the FCC fined Viacom, Nickelodeon's parent company, $1 million dollars. Disney, ABC Family's parent company, also received a $500,000 fine for violating the cross-promotion rule during 31 programs.  Many argue that these fines are not always high enough to offset the huge financial incentives thee companies have to violate the rules in the first place.

Indecent Programming Regulated

Besides advertisements and programming requirements, the FCC also has authority to regulate indecent programming. Before the infamous "wardrobe malfunction" during the 2004 Super Bowl, television indecency fines were rare.  Public outcry over the previously lax enforcement of indecent programming resulted in the FCC stepping up its enforcement of television indecency, issuing fines to Viacom for the Super Bowl ($555,000) and FOX's reality television show Married by America ($1,183,000). 

Congress also stepped into the indecency debate.  Proposed in February 2004, the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004 raised the maximum fines from $27,500 to $275,000 per incident, and established a maximum fine for multiple stations airing the same program of $3 million a day.  The companion bill in the House sought to raise the maximum fine for a single incident to $500,000 and allowed the FCC to fine individual performers. 

Family television advocates cheered the passage of the two bills, while free-speech advocates and entertainers' unions were outraged at the House version for the provision targeting on-air performers.  Congress did not resolve the differences between the two versions before adjourning for the year, and the bills therefore died.  The FCC is left with the power to issue the same level of fines as they had at the time of the Super Bowl incident.

Parental Control, Blocking Technology

Previously, Congress had put in place another line of protection for parents to monitor and limit indecent and violent programming. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 required all television sets to come with features that could block objectionable content.  The V-chip, as it's popularly known, allows parents to block shows with certain ratings. The Annenberg Public Policy Center published a paper researching parents' V-Chip usage (PDF), showing only a small handful made use of the technology.

Digital cable and satellite television often offer service packages that feature blocking technology but parents still don't have control over which channels come into their home.  Currently, there is a movement to encourage cable companies to allow the customer to choose only the channels they want to pay for.  For the time being, even if you block cable channels, you are still going to have to pay for blocked channels. A wide range of groups are supporting efforts to give parents more cable choice, including the Parents TV Council and Concerned Women for America.

Media Activists and Policymakers Join Debate

Numerous media activists and organizations are coming together to address violent and indecent programming.  You can watch a debate on indecent programming between Congressman Fred Upton and Jonathan Rintels, Executive Director of Center for Creative Voices in Media on the PBS News Hour Web site.  Consumers Union along with the Center for Digital Democracy, Common Cause, the Consumer Federation of America, Free Press, the Future of Music Coalition, the Newspaper Guild-CWA, Media Access Project, the Media Alliance, the Media Challenge, and U.S. PIRG sent a letter to the House of Representatives stating that any legislation addressing violent and indecent programming also needs to address the important debate over media consolidation.

FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein testifed about their concern that media ownership consolidation may have an impact on the frequency of indecent programming and should be studied.

Children Now, a non-profit organization working to improve the quality of television for children, has offered several studies on children and the media which show that our country's consolidated media are not serving children very well. 

The Future of Children's TV

There is still a long way to go in the children's television programming arena. Letting parents have Cable Channel Choice would allow families to avoid subsidizing programs they find objectionable. Preventing further media consolidation could encourage more diverse programming aimed at children.  These are just a few of the proposed policy changes that could improve children's television programming.

To learn about other Television, Radio and Cable issues read What's at Stake.  Then Get Involved to demand better programming for children.