Sixty percent of Americans support rules requiring broadcasters to air at least an hour a day of children’s educational programming, according to a poll released last week by the activist watchdog group Center for Media Education.

CME’s finding adds fuel to a raging debate inside the Beltway: whether TV stations should be forced to meet kidvid educational quotas. FCC chairman Reed Hundt has made these quotas his top priority in recent months, but he has yet to coax a majority of FCC members into supporting his idea for a three-hour-per-week mandate.

The recent poll of 1,027 adults found that 82% of those surveyed believe commercial TV needs more educational programming for children. Three in four support tougher regulations for kids TV than programming targeted for adults because of TV’s influence on children.

Three in five of those surveyed support an hour-a-day quota, while 35% back a two-hour-a-day mandate.

“The findings send a strong message to the FCC that the public expects decisive action to ensure that more educational programs are available to children,” CME president Dr. Kathryn Montgomery said Oct. 5, the day results from the survey were released. “Americans want more alternatives to the violent and merchandise-driven programs that dominate the children’s TV schedule.”

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the ranking member of the House telecommunications subcommittee, said the survey “confirms what parents have long known: Children’s TV on commercial broadcasting today remains the video equivalent of a Twinkie. Kids enjoy it despite the absolute absence of any nutritional value.”

Broadcast industry representatives dismissed the poll’s findings. Lynn McReynolds, a spokeswoman for the National Assn. of Broadcasters, claimed that asking parents whether they want more educational programming for kids is “like asking whether there should be more world peace.”

The real issue, McReynolds said, is whether government should be involved in dictating programming decisions. A recent Roper survey commissioned by the NAB “showed that the federal government is the last entity people think should be deciding what children see and hear on TV,” McReynolds said.

The poll found that 45% of respondents believe TV has a negative influence on children, while only 23% believe TV’s influence is positive. Moreover, 43% of those surveyed believe programming is too violent.

Participants in the survey blamed broadcast networks and advertisers for a lack of quality kidvid programming; only 16% blamed viewers.

The poll comes just as activists are gearing to step up pressure on the FCC to back programming quotas. A Children’s TV Day rally is set for Oct. 11 in D.C., with parents groups planning a press conference on Capitol Hill and a lobbying foray at the FCC.

Hundt, a Clinton appointee, has been most vocal in support of quantitative kidvid guidelines. He claims the FCC has “flubbed its job” by not providing specific guidelines to the industry.

Meanwhile, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) has begun exploring whether rules were violated in connection with Westinghouse Broadcasting’s pledge to air more kidvid shows on CBS and whether a White House aide improperly attempted to influence a vote on kidvid at the FCC.

“We’re at the earliest stages of an inquiry,” said an aide to Barton, who chairs the House oversight and investigations subcommittee. The aide said Barton has been in contact with Federal Communications Commission chairman Reed Hundt about the matter, but he could not predict whether congressional hearings will be held.

Barton’s action stems from a letter he received recently from two lawmakers. They asked him to investigate FCC commissioner James Quello’s allegations that Hundt used “legalized extortion” to force Westinghouse to promise more educational children’s programming on CBS, once regulators approve the merger of the companies.

The request came from House Commerce Committee chairman Thomas Bliley (R- Va.) and House telecommunications subcommittee chairman Jack Fields (R-Texas).

Critics, including Quello and Fields, charged that Hundt coerced Westinghouse into making the pledge as a quid pro quo for convincing media watchdog groups to drop a challenge to the Westinghouse-CBS merger.

Westinghouse agreed to hike children’s educational programming on CBS from the current level of one hour a week to three hours weekly by 1997. On the same day of the Westinghouse pledge, liberal media watchdog groups dropped a petition filed at the FCC asking the agency to block the merger.

Westinghouse and Hundt have insisted the kidvid pledge was voluntary.

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