Prodded by the White House, television broadcasters agreed Monday to air at least three hours of educational programing a week for children.
However, it remains unclear just how much extra programing will result because the definition of "educational" and the standards for meeting it are quite flexible under the deal. Depending on the standards, such situation comedies as Saved by the Bell conceivably could qualify.
President Clinton announced the agreement as he opened a White House conference on educational TV programing for children. Broadcasters agreed to program educational shows for children for at least three hours a week between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.
The Federal Communications Commission must approve the terms, but FCC Chairman Reed Hundt endorsed them Monday and said the commission might vote as soon as Thursday.
The new standard would apply to the four major commercial broadcast networks _ ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX _ along with all independent and affiliated local TV broadcasters, more than 1,400 in all. Cable TV programing would not be affected because it does not use the public airwaves and is not subject to the same law.
The television industry previously had opposed a fixed three-hour standard, objecting to it as government intrusion, but the White House brokered a compromise during the past five days that united the industry and advocacy groups for children's TV.
Peggy Charren, who founded Action for Children's Television 26 years ago, hailed the three-hour standard as a historic event. In a supporting letter to Clinton, she also called it "a giant step toward the creation of terrific television for all our children."
In contrast, Edward Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, emphasized that the compromise "offers broadcasters the flexibility" they need to meet the three-hour standard while retaining control over programing.
A number of gray areas cast doubt over just how much the deal will change programing for children.
First, Clinton noted that major TV networks routinely broadcast more than three hours of educational programing for children as recently as the early 1980s, but he said the average had fallen to two hours or less by 1990. If a broadcaster is showing two hours of such fare per week, the new standard would add only 60 more such minutes each week.
Second, the question of what is "educational TV" remains indefinite. The deal defines it as programing "specifically designed to educate and inform children." NAB and government spokesmen said that would rule out claims some broadcasters have made before that shows such as The Jetsons should qualify as informative about life in the future.
But such standard situation comedies as Saved by the Bell or the much-praised '80s-era Cosby Show, starring Bill Cosby, might qualify as meeting the new standard, suggested NAB's Fritts and Greg Simon, the White House aide who brokered the compromise. Both shows include morally uplifting values along with entertainment.
That suggests a station could show reruns of the Cosby Show six days a week at 7 a.m. and meet the new educational TV standard.
Third, a broadcaster could meet the new standard two ways under the deal. Regular weekly shows of 30 minutes or more totaling three hours per week would qualify. Or, a broadcaster could offer a different mix of programing _ including less than three hours of educational TV _ and still meet the standard if the mix included enough special programs over six months to demonstrate "a level of commitment" equivalent to a straight three hours weekly.
Fritts said that was "the key phrase" for broadcasters because it preserved flexibility for them.
Finally, when deciding whether a program qualifies as educational, the deal's language specifies that the FCC "will ordinarily rely on the good faith judgment of the broadcasters" and challenge their judgment "only as a last resort."
Clinton won political points in announcing the deal, another triumph in his campaign to promote himself as a champion of family values. Five months ago he persuaded TV executives to devise a voluntary ratings system, and earlier he championed insertion of a V-chip into new TVs so parents can block out violent programing from their homes.
The typical American child watches 25,000 hours of television before age 18; preschoolers watch 28 hours a week, Clinton noted.
"I cannot imagine anything that serves the public interest more than seeing to it that we give our children at least three hours of educational television a week," Clinton said as he opened the conference in the White House East Room attended by some 55 TV executives, children's TV activists, program producers and actors.
Children's TV stars such as Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, LeVar Burton of Reading Rainbow and Bill Nye, The Science Guy, were among those present.
Rogers held the conference spellbound momentarily as he recited, in his quiet, halting voice, a song from his show about dealing with anger _ "what do you do with the mad that you feel" _ and persuaded everyone to sit in silence for 30 seconds while they remembered the people who had helped them as children to grow up into the success stories they all had become.
TV viewing habits
Americans, especially children, are watching more TV. Some recent statistics:
+ Regularly watch TV with dinner: 66%
+ Day care centers that use TV during a typical day: 70%
+ 4 to 6-year-olds who choose TV over spending time with Dad: 54%
+ Weekly quality time with parents versus time with TV: 3.5 minutes/1,680 min.
Source: TV-Free America; research by Brenna Sink