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From Schoolhouse Rock! to Rock Bottom: The Current State of Children’s Educational Television

Posted Apr 09 2009 7:14pm

The following was written by guest blogger Christy Glaubke, Director, Children & the Media, Children Now

I was a sophomore in high school when my history teacher sternly warned the class that we would have to memorize the entire preamble to the U.S. Constitution. To illustrate what a daunting task it would be, she began to recite it for us, “ We the people of the United States of America, in order to form a more perfect union… ” Within seconds nearly every kid in my class was singing, verbatim, the entire preamble. We had already learned it—by watching ABC’s Schoolhouse Rock! on Saturday morning television.

I have never forgotten the look of utter shock on Sister Mary Margaret’s face, nor the lesson I learned that day—that television has an extraordinary ability to educate children in highly entertaining, engaging ways. The key to ensuring that children benefit from television’s potential, however, is to provide them with access to quality educational content.

In the 1990s, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) enacted the Children’s Television Act (CTA) and Three Hour Rule. Together these regulations require commercial broadcast television stations to provide three hours per week of educational/informational (E/I) programming “specifically designed” to serve the educational needs of children in return for the free use of publicly-owned airwaves. Unfortunately, the FCC doesn’t actively monitor broadcasters’ compliance with the rules. Instead, they depend upon the public to report broadcasters’ failure to fulfill their public interest obligations to children.

Children Now, therefore, commissioned a study, Educationally/Insufficient? An Analysis of the Availability and Educational Quality of Children’s E/I Programming by Dr. Dale Kunkel (University of Arizona ) and Dr. Barbara J. Wilson (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) to evaluate the quality of broadcasters’ E/I programs.

The E/I schedules of 135 stations in 24 markets were examined and content analyses were conducted on three episodes from each of the 30 E/I programs offered on these stations. Episodes were judged to be either highly, moderately or minimally educational based upon their inclusion of six quality criteria: lesson clarity, integration, involvement, applicability, importance and reinforcement.

The results revealed that while nearly all stations in the study reported airing three hours per week of E/I programs, the vast majority of their educational programs contained little educational value. Of the 90 episodes assessed, only 12 (13%) were determined to be highly educational. Nearly twice as many (23%) were judged to be minimally educational, meaning that they did not earn a high score on more than one of the six quality measures.

We also found that educational programs are not easily accessible on broadcast television. A large majority of stations (59%) provided the least possible amount of programming, three hours per week, for an average of about 25 minutes per day. Only 3% of stations exceeded four hours per week of E/I programming. Perhaps more problematic, a full 75% of stations offered E/I shows solely on Saturdays or Sundays, leaving little opportunity for kids to see E/I programs on weekday mornings or afternoons when many are likely to be watching television.

The research concludes that broadcast television is clearly not living up to its potential to serve as an educational resource for children. Children Now believes that creating the change necessary to guarantee quality educational television programming will require action from everyone who plays a role in this system, including policymakers, the broadcast industry and parents. We will be actively working in the coming months to provide each of these stakeholder groups the information and tools they need to do so.


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