A large coalition of consumer advocacy groups and public policy organizations is urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to adapt its KidVid rules governing children’s educational programming to the changing media landscape. “In light of the significant transformations in the children’s video programming marketplace in the decades since the Commission adopted many of the KidVid rules, we believe firmly that this is an area ripe for reform and deregulation,” the coalition wrote in a recent letter to the FCC.
The KidVid rules require broadcasters to air at least three hours per week of educational content for children between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. The shows must run a minimum of 30 minutes and be regularly scheduled on a weekly basis. The rules also impose heavy reporting mandates on broadcasters and restrict their advertising choices.
These rules were put in place with good intentions, and enriching the educational opportunities of children remains an important goal. But the rigidity and archaic design of the KidVid rules are doing more harm than good.
When Congress passed the Children’s Television Act in 1990 requiring that broadcasters provide programming for “the educational and informational needs of children,” no one could have predicted the revolutionary impact the internet would later have on the way children learn.
Today, a virtually unlimited selection of low-cost (and often free), high-quality children’s content is available online, on cable networks, or through over-the-top services like Netflix and Hulu. These platforms allow parents to find programming tailored to their children’s specific interests and needs. These options are nearly universally available, even to poor families. In 2017, a national survey revealed that 98 percent of households with children had a smartphone or tablet, and 99.5 percent of TV households had at least pay TV or internet access.
The growth in alternative platforms has been reflected in a dramatic decline in children’s broadcast TV viewership. The National Association of Broadcasters reports that during the 2017-2018 season, fewer than 90 children ages 2-17 watched KidVid programming via broadcast antenna on the average NBC and CBS station. In fact, about 95 percent of people watching children’s programming on NBC and CBS stations were adults, and about two-thirds were over age 55.
Over the last 30 years, children’s Saturday morning viewership of the four major networks has declined by more than 90 percent. Barely 10 in 200 young children watch Saturday morning programming on the four major networks combined.
Ironically, KidVid rules may actually undermine the goal of bringing high-quality educational content to children. Compelling broadcasters to abide by rigid rules, and file massive compliance reports, saps resources away from other platforms, like websites and mobile apps, that children are increasingly using to absorb educational material.
Clearly, over-the-air children’s programming is no longer connecting with market demand and children’s engagement with video content. But as audiences dwindle, the rigidity of KidVid rules hinders broadcasters’ ability to adapt to consumer preferences. Since shows must be at least 30 minutes long and regularly scheduled to satisfy KidVid requirements, broadcasters are discouraged from airing short YouTube-style videos or popular children’s specials. KidVid rules also hamstring stations trying to invest in high-demand programming like local news and live sports, since airing required children’s programming leaves less time for the content viewers actually want.
The correlation between strict government regulations and declining viewership is no coincidence. Under the KidVid rules, broadcasters lack the flexibility to adapt to their audiences demands, and consumers are going elsewhere for content. The FCC should continue to update its regulations and bring children’s programming into the 21st century.