In a decision released yesterday, the FCC renewed the licenses of three TV stations held by large broadcast groups, rejecting Petitions to Deny filed by a citizen’s organization arguing that the children’s educational and informational programming run by these stations was not sufficiently educational or informational to meet the requirement that stations run three hours per week of educational and informational programing. The licensees were able to present evidence that these programs where developed with expert guidance to insure that they in fact presented valuable messages to children and, based on that evidence (plus the fact that the challenged programing had been replaced by other non-challenged programming), the renewals were granted. However, the FCC warned stations to be careful in their assessments of the educational nature of children’s programs, as the FCC can sanction stations where that judgment is not deemed to be reasonable.

Every television station has an obligation to present an average of at least three hours per week of educational and informational programming directed to children who are 16 or under. That three hour requirement attaches to each programming stream broadcast by the station (including each digital subchannel – though the obligation can be met if all of the educational and informational programming is done on the main program stream of the station – so a news and weather subchannel does not need to do educational and informational programming if the main program channel does 6 weekly hours of such programming). Such programing is to be designed to serve the “cognitive/intellectual or social/emotional needs” of children. Obviously, what meets those needs can be a matter of debate.

But the FCC rules do make clear that there are certain objective obligations for such “core programs.” These include:

the program has serving the educational and informational needs of children ages 16 and under as a significant purpose; the program is aired between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.; the program is a regularly-scheduled weekly show; the program is at least 30 minutes in length; the educational objective and the target child audience are specified in writing in the licensee’s Children’s Television Programming Report; and instructions for listing the program as educational/informational, including an indication of the age group for which the program is intended, are provided by the licensee to publishers of program guides.

In this case, the question was whether the programming had as a significant purpose the furtherance of “children’s positive development in any way,” including the development of their cognitive and social skills. The Petitioners presented experts to claim that the programs that were challenged were just entertainment programming, and did nothing to further the development of children; while the stations and their program producers presented evidence that the programs in question were developed with the assistance of educational consultants to insure that they did have pro-social educational and informational elements. Given the conflict between the experts, the Commission stated that it would not substitute its judgment for that of the stations, and denied the petitions.

The FCC went on to note that “Core programming should be such that there can be no reasonable question raised as to whether a significant purpose of the broadcast is informational or educational, addressing the cognitive/intellectual or social/emotional needs of children.” It also noted that the stations in question dropped the challenged programming after the petitions were filed. Perhaps most importantly, in a final footnote, the FCC issued a warning to other broadcasters: “the staff does not automatically accept a licensee’s assertion that proffered programming meets the ‘significant purpose’ standard when a question arises as to its adequacy, but will instead require the licensee to present credible evidence to support its position in such a situation.”

What does that mean? It means that, unless a station can produce experts to vouch for the educational and informational nature of children’s programming, it should play it safe in selecting children’s programming to meet its “core” requirements. The programs it selects should have clear educational or informational goals so that there are no questions should your next renewal be challenged or should questions otherwise be raised about your compliance with the children’s television rules.