Only in D.C. would a broadcaster’s pledge to air more educational programming for children prompt so much squawking from adults.

Beltway power brokers were doing plenty of yelping last week after Westinghouse Broadcasting’s controversial pledge to air more educational kidvid programming once it completes its $5.4 billion purchase of CBS. The announcement of the “social contract” had conspiracy theorists working overtime, with allegations ranging from “administrative extortion” on the part of FCC chairman Reed Hundt to claims of a First Amendment “sellout” by Westinghouse.

Boundless skepticism

Conspiracy buffs had reason to be skeptical of Westinghouse chairman Michael Jordan’s claim that its new children’s TV commitment was voluntary.

After all, the pledge came just a day after President Clinton endorsed FCC chairman Reed Hundt’s high-profile, yet unsuccessful, campaign for kidvid quotas, and less than two weeks after the Center for Media Education and other media watchdog groups petitioned the FCC to block the Westinghouse/CBS merger. CME then dropped its petition after Westinghouse agreed to carry a minimum of three hours a week of kidvid educational programming on CBS, up from the current level of one hour per week.

After announcing the program commitment, Jordan conceded his company was being “responsive” to the media watchdog groups’ petition. Yet he maintained the kidvid pledge was voluntary, and in a statement clearly directed at Hundt, said, “it is right for these efforts to be voluntary, not mandated by the government.”

Conventional wisdom in D.C. held that Westinghouse swallowed the three-hour-a-week pledge as the price for swatting away the media watchdog group petition.

By eliminating the petition, the broadcast company saved millions associated with a delay in the regulatory approval process, sources said.

FCC commissioner James Quello harshly panned the Westinghouse pledge, calling it “highly suspect because it follows… an unprecedented, relentless campaign” by Hundt for TV quotas. “Broadcasters beware,” said Quello. “If you choose to sell out the First Amendment, you will have to do so without the support of this commissioner.”

Quello, whose Hatfield-McCoy feud with Hundt has been the source of endless fascination to FCC watchers, fingered the FCC chairman as the inspiration behind the watchdog groups’ petition. That charge was denied by both Hundt and Henry Geller, the Center for Media Education attorney.

“Hundt is saying ‘write me, write me’ to every activist in America” said Quello, who maintained the FCC chairman is seeking to extract programming concessions out of broadcasters that other FCC members have refused to embrace.

By week’s end, key Republicans on Capitol Hill were singing from Quello’s hymnal. House telecommunications subcommittee chairman Jack Fields (R-Texas) wrote Hundt to express “grave concerns” that the FCC review process could become “an opportunity for greenmail and legalized extortion.”

Not to be outdone, Senate Commerce Committee chairman Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) demanded answers on whether Hundt or his staff has discussed the idea of social contracts with Westinghouse, Disney, NBC, members of Congress or the Clinton administration.

FCC member Andrew Barrett said he remains opposed to Hundt’s kidvid quota plan, and that he is “very interested” in knowing about the FCC chairman’s prior talks with Westinghouse.

For his part, Hundt pressed forward with a call for FCC quantitative guidelines for every broadcaster. “If the public interest is served by the concrete, quantifiable promise of one broadcaster to provide educational programming for children, then surely it is served by having a clear rule applicable to all broadcasters,” said Hundt. “Without such a rule it is hard to see how one broadcaster, standing alone, can keep its promise.”

The FCC, said Hundt, “has totally failed to give guidance to broadcasters. We’ve flubbed our job.”

Hundt waffled when asked whether he thinks he’ll win over a majority of the five FCC members on kidvid quotas. Initially, he said other commissioners “are starting to come around.” Later, he backpedaled, saying that if his plan is defeated, the broadcast industry will remain “stuck in the same morass” of not knowing whether their kidvid programming efforts pass regulatory muster.

Current law requires TV stations to meet the educational needs of moppets, but Congress avoided mandating a certain amount of educational hours per week. Public interest activists complain the FCC has renewed licenses of TV stations that claim programs such as “The Jetsons” meet the children’s TV law mandate.

Because children’s educational programming often is a station money-loser, the broadcast industry has resisted Hundt’s call for quotas. But there’s already speculation the Westinghouse pledge might force the entire industry to accede to higher quantitative standards.

Indeed, the Westinghouse commitment might force the Walt Disney Co. into a similar deal to assure quick FCC approval of its purchase of Capital Cities/ABC. Sources said ABC representatives have already contacted attorneys for media watchdog groups in a bid to head off a challenge to the Mouse/Alphabet web marriage.

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