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Menudo, Mary Lou Retton, and "Schoolhouse Rock": Making the Case for a New Children's Television Act
Federal Communications Commissioner Michael O'Rielly is a fan of Schoolhouse Rock. His recent proposal to drastically curtail the Children's Television Act of 1990 relies on the premise that overly restrictive broadcast rules killed beloved Saturday morning animated classics of the '70s and '80s and that removing these restrictions will allow such programs to return to enlighten the minds of new generations. O'Rielly mentioned Schoolhouse Rock in the FCC's official notice, in interviews with the press, and in public remarks to industry groups. But the FCC's children's television rules didn't kill Schoolhouse Rock. In fact, Schoolhouse Rock would not exist if not for pressure from FCC commissioners past, which O'Rielly does not acknowledge.
From the beginning, the forces behind the Children's Television Act were at work in programs like Schoolhouse Rock, ABC's beloved after-school specials, and Bill Nye the Science Guy. Children's television was largely unregulated until the early 1970s, when an activist group, Children's Television Action, petitioned the FCC to eliminate ads in TV shows aimed at kids. The networks, including ABC, faced pressure to improve their children's programming, especially their "children's hour" on weekend mornings (ABC's weekend morning lineup included Hot Wheels, a show infamous for breaching the line between commercials and programming). The solution? Add some educational programming to calm their critics, while keeping children entertained and their ratings up. At that same time, a group of ad executives pitched ABC an idea for a show that used short jingles to teach kids. These two ideas seemed perfect for one another, and ABC greenlighted the very first episodes of Schoolhouse Rock, hoping that this attempt at self-regulation would appease the FCC.
Schoolhouse Rock premiered in 1973, and the next year the FCC issued a policy statement that created new advertising regulations on children's television.
More than 10 years later, the FCC repealed advertising and other restrictions on children's television shows, with orders in 1984 and 1986. In 1985, after a dozen successful years, an ABC executive gave Schoolhouse Rock the boot, replacing it first with music videos from the band Menudo and then an exercise program starring Mary Lou Retton. Unlike Schoolhouse Rock, these programs were not educational, and they were allowed to promote products directly to kids because of a lack of advertising rules. During this period, the number of toy-based kids' programs on the air increased from 13 to more than 70, tripling revenues from the sales of related products.
In 1990 Congress had had enough and passed the Children's Television Act. So, in reality, it was regulatory pressure from the FCC that led to educational content like Schoolhouse Rock, rather than those regulations killing it.
Rules that encourage educational programming are in place for a reason, and Common Sense Kids Action is fighting to keep them in place for current and future generations. There will be more to come in the next couple of months as we track the future of broadcast television (still watched by 25 million U.S. households) and fight to ensure quality programming for kids across all platforms.