Congress put broadcasters on notice yesterday that TV station licenses will be placed in jeopardy unless the industry cleans up its act in the area of children’s programming.

“Broadcasters, beware,” warned House telecommunications subcommittee chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.). “The new era has begun. Standards are no longer going to be determined under Mark Fowler, Reagan-Bush FCC standards … but rather the Clinton-Gore standards. There will be license challenges.”

Markey’s subcommittee was the setting for a hearing in which broadcasters were on the defensive for the industry’s alleged indifference to passage of a 1990 law requiring TV stations to to meet the educational needs of children.

Lawmakers — egged on by the likes of Action for Childrens Television founder Peggy Charren and veteran kidvid host Shari Lewis — took turns berating Hollywood and the broadcast community for not offering quality children’s shows on commercial TV.

“I don’t think television is assuming the responsibility that it must,” said Rep. Jim Slattery (D-Kan.), who also expressed sympathy for parents who he claimed are “being maligned and abused by the trash” that he said marks most of today’s TV programs.

Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said, “To me it’s a question of priority. What I haven’t seen from broadcasters is that kids are a national priority.”

Spectrum-fee warning

Markey said Congress must question the benefits of granting broadcasters “must-carry” protection and free use of the radio spectrum.

Kidvid programming excellence should represent “payback” from the industry for the special privileges it receives, said Markey, who hinted that spectrum fees might be a penalty worth considering if the industry doesn’t shape up.

The hearing was prompted in part by claims made to the FCC by some broadcasters that programs such as “The Jetsons,””G.I. Joe” and “Leave It to Beaver” adequately meet the educational needs of children.

Such claims prompted ACT founder Charren to state: “If the broadcaster can’t figure out what educational is, then that broadcaster ought to be in the shoe business.”

Industry defenders

Brooke Spectorsky, general manager at WUAB-TV in Cleveland, and Paul LaCamera , station manager at WCVB-TV in Boston, gamely defended the industry.

Spectorsky noted that the new kidvid law has been in force for less than two years.

“We simply cannot create good quality, innovative programs overnight,” he said. “These are transitional problems” that are self-correcting. “Don’t shoot all of us for the questionable actions of a few.”

However, Lewis said it is “unthinkable” that it would take nearly two years for commercial stations to devise quality programs. PBS “did it in six months,” she said.

Lewis at one point used her sidekick puppet Lamb Chop to make a point.

Future threatened

“We are all stockholders in the future of our children. Bad TV drives down the price of the stock,” she said.

Jeff Chester, co-director of the D.C.-based Center for Media Education, maintained that there are “plenty of highly talented and experienced producers” committed to offering daring programs that educate children. The problem, he said in testimony, is that they have been “consistently thwarted … by the broadcast gatekeepers.”

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