Children's Television Act:

FCC Could Improve Efforts to Oversee Enforcement and Provide Public Information

GAO-11-659: Published: Jul 14, 2011. Publicly Released: Jul 14, 2011.

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The Children's Television Act of 1990 (CTA) and related Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules restrict advertising during children's programs, whether aired by broadcast stations, cable operators, or satellite providers, and encourage broadcasters to air at least 3 hours per week of educational and informational programming for children (known as "core children's programming"). Broadcasters that certify in their license renewal application that they aired the minimum amount of core children's programming are eligible for expedited review. As requested, this report discusses (1) trends in children's programming, (2) FCC efforts to enforce the act, and (3) the extent to which parents value and use core children's programming. GAO analyzed FCC data, interviewed FCC and broadcast station officials, and conducted focus groups with parents.

Broadcasters aired significantly more core children's programming in 2010 than in 1998, primarily because there are more broadcast channels and stations than there were then. An important source is multicasting, or the multiple channels aired by broadcasters since the digital television transition. Moreover, households increasingly rely on cable and satellite providers--to which core children's programming requirements do not apply--increasing the number of channels specifically targeted to children, but also increasing the impact of CTA and FCC's rules on advertising, which limit the duration of commercials and require their separation from children's programming on broadcast, cable, and satellite. Other media platforms, such as the Internet and MP3 players, are outside CTA's reach. FCC's reliance on broadcasters to self-report violations of CTA when they renew their operating licenses has resulted in about 7,000 violations of the advertising or public file rules resulting in fines of almost $3 million. The vast majority of violations were for exceeding advertising time limits. FCC has no comparable self-reporting enforcement approach to oversee cable operators' or satellite providers' compliance with these same advertising limits. Instead, FCC's oversight efforts have identified only seven violations by cable and satellite providers even though they televise much more children's programming than broadcasters. FCC has avoided developing specific standards for core children's programming or judging program content, due to free speech concerns, relying instead on a broad definition and oversight by the public. A lack of widely accepted standards to assess such programming makes it difficult for parents and broadcasters to evaluate the educational content of core children's programming, potentially leading to wide variation in its quality. In the past, FCC and the media industry have collaborated to resolve concerns about program content in other areas. Parent focus groups were largely unaware of CTA's requirements despite FCC's public education efforts. Once informed about the act and core children's programming, focus group parents believed requirements governing such programming should be more stringent than current rules. Core children's programming is designated as such by broadcast stations, but focus group parents believed independent standards or assessments of programming should be required, and parents in all focus groups perceived broadcast station involvement in the process to be a potential conflict of interest. Parents in our focus groups stated that important aspects of children's programming were that it be educational, age appropriate, and entertaining. Focus group parents had differing views on the importance and definition of educational television, but generally agreed that child-dedicated cable networks are more trustworthy for children's programming than broadcast stations and that a gap exists in appropriate programming for school-age children. GAO recommends that FCC (1) implement a strategy to oversee cable operators' and satellite providers' compliance, (2) work with industry to develop voluntary guidelines for assessing core children's programming, and (3) implement and assess the effectiveness of additional mechanisms to inform parents about core children's programming. FCC generally concurred with GAO's recommendations and discussed planned and ongoing actions to address them.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Under the Children's Television Act of 1990 (CTA) and subsequent regulations, broadcast television stations, cable operators, and satellite providers are required to limit the time and content of advertising shown during programming intended for children 12 years old and younger. In 2011, GAO reported that FCC relies on broadcasters to self-report violations but lacks a corresponding oversight approach for cable operators and satellite providers. FCC's reliance on broadcasters to self-report violations of CTA when they renew their operating licenses has resulted in about 7,000 violations of the advertising or public file rules resulting in fines of almost $3 million. During the licensed period, FCC also oversees compliance with the act through its investigations of consumer complaints and reviews of some quarterly filings made by broadcasters. However, FCC has no comparable self-reporting enforcement approach to oversee cable operators' or satellite providers' compliance with these same advertising limits. Instead, FCC's oversight efforts have identified only seven violations by cable and satellite providers even though they televise much more children's programming than broadcasters. Without effective oversight of cable and satellite providers, FCC cannot ensure that those providers are complying with the act, potentially exposing children to excess or inappropriate advertising that the act and FCC rules seek to minimize and leading to unbalanced enforcement. GAO recommended that FCC develop and implement a strategy for overseeing cable operators' and satellite providers' compliance with the required advertising limits. In response, FCC indicated that it had plans to conduct oversight of cable operators' and satellite providers' compliance with advertising rules on a consistent basis. In 2015, GAO confirmed that FCC conducted a review of cable operators and satellite providers but FCC found no violations of the CTA advertising limits. FCC also issued a public notice, reminding cable operators and satellite providers of their obligations associated with the transmission of children's programming. Based on the lack of identified violations from this and a previous, similar audit, FCC decided not to conduct annual audits but is aware of the importance of periodic monitoring. This risk-based strategy increases FCC's assurance that all programming providers are complying with the children's advertising requirements and that enforcement is not unbalanced.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that children more fully benefit from the Children's Television Act of 1990, and to improve enforcement of the act and the related rules, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission should develop and implement a strategy for overseeing cable operators' and satellite providers' compliance with the required advertising limits.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To increase children's access to educational television programming, the Children's Television Act of 1990 (CTA) and related Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules encourage broadcasters to air at least 3 hours per week of educational and informational programming for children (known as "core children's programming"). In 2011, GAO reported on concerns about the quality and educational value of some core children's programming. FCC rules define core children's programming but officials told GAO that this definition is intentionally broadly written so as not to dictate specific programming content. Broadcasters are responsible for selecting core children's programming and certifying that it adheres to FCC's definition but there were no broadly accepted industry standards for educational programming that broadcasters can use. Without standards, broadcasters cannot be sure that their programming is educational and informational under the act. Therefore, GAO recommended that FCC collaborate with the media industry to explore the potential for voluntary guidelines or standards to be used in creating and assessing core children's programming, to better ensure that core children's programming meets the educational and informational needs of children. In 2015, GAO confirmed that FCC took several steps to implement GAO's recommendation by collaborating with the broadcast industry. First, FCC representatives collaborated with broadcasters through National Association of Broadcasters' panel discussions that include discussions about CTA programming. Second, the FCC official overseeing CTV compliance said she held informal discussions about children's programming with content producers, such as a production company that provides educational programming for ABC, CBS, and CW, representing 3 of the 5 largest broadcast networks. Third, FCC formally clarified its definition of core children's programming, stating that "there can be no reasonable question raised" as to whether the programming aired by a broadcaster is educational. FCC officials said that this level of collaboration is appropriate based on the low level of complaints FCC has received about core programming. The steps FCC has taken meet the spirit of GAO's recommendation thorough the Commissions discussions with the broadcast industry to address concerns regarding the content of children's programming. As a result, FCC has taken the first real steps towards developing volunteer guidelines, which will make it easier for parents and broadcaster to evaluate the education and informational content of core children's programming.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that children more fully benefit from the Children's Television Act of 1990, and to better ensure that core children's programming meets the educational and informational needs of children, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission should collaborate with the media industry to explore the potential for voluntary guidelines or standards to be used in creating and assessing core children's programming.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: On September 13, 2011, FCC sent GAO its 60-day letter. FCC said that it is in the process of improving and expanding its outreach efforts, citing two specific efforts and plans to measure their effectiveness. On November 18, 2013, FCC reported to GAO that it had no update on its efforts relevant to this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that children more fully benefit from the Children's Television Act of 1990, and to better inform parents about core children's programming and how it is designated as such, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission should coordinate with broadcasters, associations, parents, and other stakeholders to (1) identify additional mechanisms--such as the recently launched 'Parents' Place' Web site--for educating the public about core children's programming on commercial broadcast television stations and assisting parents in making well-informed decisions about their use of core children's programming; (2) implement these mechanisms; and (3) measure and assess the effectiveness of these mechanisms.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

 

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