Kids Programming In a Digital World: Ways To Regulate


Last week, the FCC proposed changes to its rules governing children’s programming.

“While the proposal is not as sexy as internet regulation, it is an important and overdue step toward updating the law to reflect the realities of the modern video marketplace,” says Daniel Lyons, an associate professor at Boston College Law School and a visiting fellow at a D.C. think tank with a big influence on the Commission.

That would be the American Enterprise Institute. Writing for AEI’s TechPolicyDaily, Lyons believes the Commission’s proposed changes to its rules governing children’s programming are another important component of the commission’s larger project “to clear regulatory underbrush and update the rules for the digital era.”

By Daniel Lyons

On Capitol Hill, politicians are still discussing former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s 2016 bid to assert jurisdiction over broadband providers. But across the National Mall, current FCC chairman Ajit Pai continues to shift the agency away from his predecessor’s empire-building ways and back to the blocking and tackling of everyday telecommunications regulation.

Last week, the agency proposed changes to its rules governing children’s programming. While the proposal is not as sexy as internet regulation, it is an important and overdue step toward updating the law to reflect the realities of the modern video marketplace.

Overview of the Kid Vid rules

The children’s programming requirements, known as the “Kid Vid” rules, flow from the 1990 Children’s Television Act. The act requires the FCC, as part of its review of a broadcast licensee’s renewal application, to “consider the extent to which the licensee . . . has served the educational and informational needs of children through the licensee’s overall programming, including programming specifically designed to serve such needs.” But the statute speaks only in general terms, delegating to the commission the authority to determine how a broadcaster could meet this amorphous obligation.

The current rules, enacted over two decades ago, effectively require broadcasters to air three hours each week of “core programming,” defined as shows that serve the educational and informational needs of children under age 16. To count toward this requirement, the programming must be at least a half-hour long, air between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., and be scheduled on a weekly basis. As broadcasters began multicasting as part of the digital transition, the agency required broadcasters to meet the three-hour requirement on each video stream.

Kid Vid in the era of on-demand internet-based video

When the commission enacted the Kid Vid rules, broadcast was by far the leading source of video entertainment for most American households. The rules reflect three assumptions about the broadcast business model:

Commercial broadcasters lack sufficient market incentives to create educational and informational children’s programming.

Given the limited number of broadcasters, most markets lack sufficient content to enrich the minds of America’s youth.

Educational programming must mimic other broadcast programming’s length and scheduling to be incorporated into the regular viewing rhythms of the viewing public.

However accurate those assumptions were two decades ago, they did not age well as broadcast was displaced by alternative forms of video entertainment.

Cable television dramatically increased the number of programming hours available to consumers each week. Cable operators learned to cater profitably to niche audiences, creating an explosion of educational programming targeting both general audiences (such as National Geographic) and children in particular (such as Nickelodeon). At the same time, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), long known for its educational content, developed into a powerhouse of quality children’s programming, airing core programming far in excess of Kid Vid requirements — including PBS Kids, a multicast stream that streams such programming 24 hours a day.

The rise of internet-based on-demand video has further increased the supply of quality programming and fundamentally changed the way such content is consumed. Netflix, Hulu, and other over-the-top video providers make significant libraries of children’s content available to subscribers at any time. Nielsen data shows that amid this plethora of choices, children in particular watch significantly less traditional scheduled television programming than they did even four years ago. Traditional television viewing is down 22 percent among children ages 2–11 and a whopping 38 percent among children ages 12–17.

The FCC’s proposed revision of the Kid Vid rules is an appropriate reaction to this changed media landscape. Among other suggestions, the commission has proposed eliminating the requirement that core programming be at least 30 minutes long and regularly scheduled. Doing so makes sense. The YouTube generation is increasingly conditioned to enjoy content in bite-sized chunks on demand. The rules should credit educational content that meets this demand, rather than requiring broadcasters to mimic an increasingly obsolete 1990s-era appointment-TV model.

Most controversially, the agency is considering relaxing the three-hour requirement. Given the plethora of similar content available from cable channels, over-the-top video providers, and internet apps, the need for a three-hour weekly broadcast set-aside is not as strong as it was when the rules were enacted. Of course, not all households can afford the cable and broadband subscriptions that make this new content available. But because of multicasting, even households that rely solely on broadcast television have far more options than were available when Congress passed the act — including PBS Kids, which reaches 95 percent of American households, and Qubo, a similar 24/7 children’s multicast station by Ion Media that reaches over 90 million households.

If the agency finds that these alternatives are insufficient to meet the needs of most families, the proposed rule also suggests allowing broadcasters to meet their requirements by airing core programming on any of their multicast streams, rather than the primary stream. This would provide valuable flexibility to broadcasters while assuring a sufficient amount of programming remains available over the air in each market.

The Kid Vid proposal is part of the commission’s larger project to clear regulatory underbrush and update the rules for the digital era. While the commission has little authority to regulate broadband, it must recognize how broadband and other innovations have altered the competitive landscape for entities within its authority and adjust the rules appropriately.

The proposed Kid Vid rule is a big step in the right direction.

The views expressed by Media Information Bureau columnists are those of the writer only and not of the editorial board of the Radio + Television Business Report or its parent, Streamline Publishing.