TV Worth Watching

August 8, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

CHARLES KRAUSE: Commissioner Hundt, thank you very much for joining us. Now, once this new rule takes effect, will every station everywhere in the country be required to air three hours of children’s programming every week?

REED HUNDT, Chairman, FCC: This rule is going to guarantee that virtually every TV station, almost every single week, gives us three hours of educational TV. We’ve got a few exception clauses and a few caveats for special circumstances, but the core of what the President was talking about I believe we’re going to deliver.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Now what happens if a station decides it doesn’t want to comply with this rule?

REED HUNDT: Well, a station that doesn’t want to comply with this rule is going to have a very tough time getting its license renewed, so I don’t think that’s a category that’s going to have very many people in it.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Do you anticipate, though, there being disputes, questions about what constitutes education television or programming versus what doesn’t?

REED HUNDT: It could happen. But I actually doubt that it will happen. I think what we’re going to see is that the creative community now has a chance to rise up to this new ethic we’re trying to spark and say, look at me, I’m Bill Cosby, I’m Shelley Duvall, I’m willing to participate in these shows, and I’m willing to make sure that I’m not only capturing the attention of my audience but I’m trying to teach them something. I think that’s what we’re going to see.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Now as we know, there has been a continuing debate over what constitutes educational children’s programming. How do you define education children’s programming?

REED HUNDT: It’s a good question, but first we have to have something to define. And what this rule is all about is guaranteeing that there’s some shows that you can then evaluate. Now in terms of evaluating those shows, I think we ought to do a number of different things. We ought to have a strict definition here. The show ought to be designed to educate.

Secondly, we ought to use outside groups like the Annenberg School to give report cards to broadcasters in the same way that kids get report cards at schools so that if a broadcaster is doing a show and it says it’s educational and social scientists at Annenberg give them an F, well, maybe they ought to go back and their own homework on their own show and try to get it an A.

I also think we’re going to rely on the court of public opinion, teachers and parents. When the broadcasters have to tell you what the show is that is intended to be educational, then they’ll have to hear from parents and teachers if the audience thinks that it was really a flimflam game and not really the delivery of a quality product.

CHARLES KRAUSE: I think I should explain or you should explain when you refer to the Annenberg Group, you’re talking about the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, correct?

REED HUNDT: I’m talking about the Annenberg Communications Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

CHARLES KRAUSE: And what exactly–what role might they play in this process?

REED HUNDT: I think that they’re the kind of outside group that has expertise in TV and in social science and that can help us all figure out how to invent a new art form, the art of teaching kids.

CHARLES KRAUSE: And, in fact, they formed a council of sorts that will be doing precisely that.

REED HUNDT: They did exactly that. And we don’t have a lot of experience in this country with commercial networks trying to develop the art of teaching kids with television. We’ve talked about it for decades, but the fight to have a rule that quantifies the public interest and guarantees three hours of educational TV, it’s a 26-year fight, and we finally have victory.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Now you talked about the need for a very strict definition of what constitutes educational television. Is that something that is going to be developed here at the FCC, that definition, or how do you envision that coming about?

REED HUNDT: You’ll see it in the two pages of rules. You saw it in what the President said that we ought to put into our rules. We’re only talking about three hours a week, so there’s no need to have a slack-jawed, ambiguous definition. For three hours, such a small amount, we can afford to have a very strict definition and a very tight focus on what really is designed to educate and is free over the air.

CHARLES KRAUSE: The Jetsons, which was a cartoon show, I guess, at one point, one of the networks claimed that that was educational.

REED HUNDT: Under the old definition, it was–as Commissioner Chung said–so ambiguous you could drive a truckload of programming through it.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Well, how will you–what will this new definition do to tighten it up?

REED HUNDT: Well, we’re going to change the words. We’re going to say that the purpose of the programming has to really be to educate, not just to entertain, not just to pass the time of day. But I have to emphasize that I think what we’re going to see here is a new ethic to use television to try to teach kids, not all the time, not most of the time, not even a lot of the time, but for three hours a week for every broadcast licensee.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Do you anticipate many stations trying, though, to get around it?

REED HUNDT: I don’t think so. I think that this 26-year fight has had a happy ending in which broadcasters have come into agreement for their purposes. Now, if we had to coerce them, if we had to command them to obey the rule, we’d probably have a lot of difficulty, but we haven’t had to do that. Instead, we’ve had a conversion, and I think that’s a lot better.

CHARLES KRAUSE: What kinds of programs that are aired currently would not qualify under this new educational television definition that you anticipate?

REED HUNDT: Well, I don’t think the Washington Redskins, which I watch assiduously every fall, I don’t think they’d qualify. But let’s be realistic here. We have plenty of entertainment. We have plenty of sports. Everybody knows when you send your kid to school the difference between the playground and the classroom. It’s not that hard for people to figure out what is designed to teach and educate and what is designed to entertain. Every single day during the school year 2 million teachers figure this out in their classrooms, so everyone else here can figure it out too.

CHARLES KRAUSE: But this is a country where First Amendment rights become the subject of lawsuits often and this is an area where the broadcasters have at times claimed that this is an infringement of their First Amendment rights. Do you anticipate that there will be 20 years of lawsuits as you try to define what is and what is not educational, what is and what is not within the bounds that qualify here?

REED HUNDT: Broadcasters have told us that they believe the rule we’re going to pass is constitutional. I believe that also, and here’s why. We are not prohibiting anyone from teaching anything. We are not going to order a point of view. We are going to be indifferent to the content of the message. We’re only going to say one thing: Do something to help teach kids, but what you decide to teach and the way you decide to teach it, and your point of view, that’s up to you, and the government is not interfering in that.

CHARLES KRAUSE: To what extent must parents, in effect, take responsibility? I mean, even if all this programming is available, it doesn’t necessarily mean kids are going to watch it.

REED HUNDT: You know, in the ancient years of this debate, the traditional stance of liberals was there’s nothing you can do about what’s on TV, just turn it off if you don’t like it, And the stance of conservatives was let the marketplace give you whatever it gives you, you can’t do anything about it.

This is a third way. We’re seeing that responsibility for selecting shows ought to be in the home, but we’re also seeing the people with responsibility ought to be empowered by having the V-chip so they have a little bit of power to choose, by having information so they have the power to choose, and by having something to choose, such as a rule that promotes quality shows. So this is a new way and a third way, and it’s sure worth trying.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Critics of this rule have said that three hours is arbitrary, it’s not enough, there ought to be more children’s programming required on television. How did this three-hour time–or how did you arrive at that?

REED HUNDT: It’s a modest number. I’ve never met anyone who thought it was unreasonably high. It’s a good place to start. Let’s get going with it.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Mr. Hundt, thank you for joining us.

REED HUNDT: Thank you.