Running a television network is a little bit like running a convenience store. It’s important to maximize every last bit of floor space (read: airtime) for maximum profitability. So what were the major networks to do back in 1990, when a watershed law called the Children’s Television Act required them to broadcast more educational programs for children with significantly less advertising allowed per half hour? The answer was to find a loophole in that law and then exploit the holy living hell out of it. That way, the networks could obey the letter of the law while basically ignoring the spirit of the law. In this case, the loophole was that the advertising restrictions only applied to shows aimed at preteens. If the networks claimed that their educational shows were targeted toward adolescents aged 13 to 16, they could cram several more minutes of commercials into every show. David Robb tells the whole, disheartening saga in an article for Deadline.
The networks found ingenious ways to skirt the 1990 law while working even more kid-targeted advertising into their programming. If it weren’t so sleazy and soulless, it could almost be considered an art. Many of the networks have farmed their educational programming responsibilities out to a company called Litton Entertainment. Litton’s specialty is cranking out quasi-educational shows that are really testimonials for various sponsors. ABC’s Sea Rescue and The Wildlife Docs shill for, respectively, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens. Meanwhile, the host of Jack Hanna’s Wild Countdown gets to mention the Columbus Zoo And Aquarium frequently during his show, all because it’s aimed at 13-16 year olds. Whether any teens are actually watching Jack Hanna’s Wild Countdown remains a mystery.
But how did all this educational requirement for network TV come about? Robb tells that story, too. It all goes back to the late 1960s, when the late Peggy Charren, a stay-at-home mom, began her crusade to clean up children’s television after being “horrified” by what her kids were watching on Saturday mornings. Charren formed an organization called Action For Children’s Television (ACT). The 1990 law was the result of literally decades of lobbying on behalf of Charren and ACT. So what would Charren, who died in 2015, think of today’s “educational” programming for kids? “She’s probably rolling over in her grave right now,” says her daughter.