'Kid Vid' TV rules are growing up
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Nearly three decades have passed since the Children’s Television Act of 1990 became law, which resulted in Federal Communications Commission regulations commonly referred to as “Kid Vid.” Among other requirements, these rules require broadcasters to air a certain number of hours of educational and informational programming per week at specified times of the day. These rules are in dire need of modernization to reflect the seismic shift in how video content is consumed, especially by children, and to remove unworkable burdens facing broadcasters. Come Wednesday, the commission is going to conclude an extensive review process by adopting new rules that address both issues while protecting the law’s original intent.

Gone are the days when everyone had to tune in at the same time and channel each week to watch the newest episodes of a favorite show. Today, it is not uncommon for viewers, including children, to consume a mix of video programming, including traditional over-the-air broadcast TV; cable networks; video on demand; online streaming content, such as National Geographic Kids; or programming from over-the-top providers, such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. Notwithstanding this extensive competition in the video marketplace, local broadcasters are the only ones forced to operate under our Kid Vid rules. Additionally, many local broadcasters have demonstrated that local coverage of community events often must be neglected to remain in compliance with existing Kid Vid obligations and other rigid commission mandates. 

Despite the need for changes, I acknowledged early on in this process the importance of preserving Kid Vid shows for those viewers without access to these programming alternatives that are often broadband-dependent. For those households that only have access to free, over-the-air broadcast TV — in many cases lower-income families — our updated regulations will still require a full plate of 156 hours per year of children’s programming. In fact, two over-the-air broadcasters have already launched their own 24/7 children’s television channels: PBS Kids and Ion Television’s Qubo. Both have informed the commission of their intent to continue to provide these channels to all viewers via over-the-air TV.

At the same time, we are providing broadcasters with new flexibility to shift regularly scheduled programming, both in terms of time slots and channel placement, to meet the demands and interests of the local television markets they serve. Our new rules will also provide more specificity for gaining regulatory approval for programming specials with lengths other than the standard 30-minute block. And it starts the process already contained in law to determine the framework for commercial broadcasters to fund local public broadcasters’ educational and informational programming efforts in a market.

Critics and powerful special interests insist that any changes to the status quo will harm consumers. But their arguments fall flat when we look at the facts.

For instance, they attack the option to air programming on a multicast station to meet the Kid Vid required hours. But free over-the-air only households are precisely those viewers with access to multicasting channels; in other words, this population is not affected one bit by the reforms. In other instances, critics’ objections are fundamentally with the underlying statute, not our particular rule changes.

While I originally sought broader reforms to the Kid Vid regulations, what we have ended up with is a reasoned and balanced compromise. In the end, this effort takes modest but important steps toward a freer television market, and it’s a deal for which nearly all sides can claim some measure of victory, especially the children.

Isn’t this supposed to be about them anyway?

Michael O’Rielly has served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission since 2013.