Children's Entertainment

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V. Actions

Can we change the nature of children's television? I believe the answer is yes, and it would seem that there are three areas or levels in which we can bring about some changes: home, school, and industry.

At the home level, we can encourage greater awareness of the influence of television on children and enhance understanding of ways that parents and teachers can help children use TV effectively. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Co-operative Extension Service at Kansas State University (Murray & Lonnborg, 1995) has produced a parent guide publication on this topic. This guide is a review of some of the concerns about television and children and provides suggestions for parents in using television in a constructive manner. One of the straightforward techniques for use at home that is very effective is viewing along with your children and talking about what they see on television. With very young children talking about how violence is faked and what would happen if you actually did some of those things that you see on television is a very basic intervention. Such interventions, at the personal or family level, can lead to enhanced understanding of television's influence and more effective use of this medium.

At the school level, interventions such as advocating for the inclusion of media literacy courses in school systems can be very effective. These "critical viewing" programs help children understand how television works and the process of effects. There are many very effective programs, but, in the case of media literacy addressed to the violence issue, one interesting new program has been developed by the Centre for Media Literacy (1995). Called "Beyond Blame -- Challenging Violence in the Media, a Multimedia Literacy Program for Community Empowerment," this program is one that a school system or a community agency might use as a general educational intervention. Another approach to enhancing public awareness is working with parents and communities to address television violence as a public health issue. There has been a long history of public advocacy concern about television violence (Kunkel & Murray, 1991; Montgomery, 1989), and there are several major organisations -- Centre for Media Education, Centre for Media Literacy, Mediascope, National Alliance for Non-violent Programming, and the National Telemedia Council --that are producing materials for parents and community organisations. One such videotape, The Kids are Watching, from Mediascope (1993) is very effective in stimulating discussion of the impact of TV violence.

Finally, there are industry and government activities that might be undertaken to change children's television. The Children's Television Act of 1990 did set some limits on the amount of advertising in children's programming and did set some expectations that stations applying for license renewal will have to explain how they have served the educational needs of children in their broadcast area. And, the FCC is now thinking about elaborating that by including quotas (Federal Communications Commission, 1995), such as one hour per day of children's educational television.

Another approach, which is more voluntary than regulatory, involves working with the industry to introduce changes in the role that advertising plays in supporting children's programming. One might encourage advertisers to shift their support of children's programming from advertising to underwriting. Sponsorship of children's TV would then shift from advertising to enhance corporate income to underwriting to enhance corporate image.

Why recommend a shift from "income" to "image?" The rationale for this change begins with the observation that Saturday morning children's television is currently a mass-audience format and there are few age-specific, targeted educational programs. One of the reasons for this absence of age-specific programming is the need to generate programming that will fit advertisers' needs for a large audience of 2- to 12-year-old children. One result is the large number of violent cartoons. For example, we have noted that there are about 25 violent acts per hour in Saturday morning programming directed at children. And, one might ask, why does Saturday morning programming look the way it does? Why is it as violent as it is, and what is the relationship to advertising? One of the reasons for cartoon programs on Saturday morning is the fact that advertisers want to get a maximum return on their program, and they need to have the largest possible audience. The only way this can be done is to accumulate the audience from 2- to 12-year-old children. When advertisers talk about the child audience, they are not talking about 6 year olds or 4 year olds, they are talking about that entire range of childhood from 2 to 12 years. The only format that will hold the attention span of the large, heterogeneous audience is fast-action, fast-paced programming -- animated programming. And so, Saturday morning programming contains fast-action, fast-paced cartoons that tend to be violent. You can create fast-paced, fast-moving, non-violent programming -- Sesame Street is an example -- but, it is difficult to create such programming for a broad age range. Therefore, we are likely to have fast-action, fast-paced, highly-violent cartoons because they hold the attention of a broad age range of 2 to 12 year olds. However, if we moved from advertising supporting corporate "income" to sponsorship supporting corporate "image," there would be no need to assemble a huge audience and the nature of programming might change. For example, one might find advertisers underwriting specialised, age-specific programming that is targeted to particular interest areas of a highly-differentiated child audience.

Other industry level initiatives might include further development of the parental advisory that the television networks began implementing in 1987. The "viewer discretion" warnings that have been attached to prime time movies since September, 1987 have been shown to have some influence in reducing viewership among the 2- to 11-year-old audiences. Hamilton (1994), conducted an analysis of audience rating data for network movies carrying viewer discretion advisories broadcast during the period September 17, 1987 to September 26, 1993. He found that movies carrying the warnings lost .59 ratings points among children 2 to 11. This translates into 222,000 fewer children -- or a 14% drop in average audience rating for this age group -- for movies that contained viewer discretion warnings. There were no changes in viewership for teens or adults. These findings suggest that parents are sensitive to the warnings and will act on the information provided concerning program content.

A related development being considered by the industry is the possible rating of violence levels on television programs and the potential co-ordination with electronic screening devices known as "V-chip" technology. While there is no clear agreement on the implementation of ratings and screening technology, some members of Congress have suggested legislation that would require the FCC to mandate the inclusion of an electronic circuit, or V-chip, in all new television sets. This technology is rather similar to the circuitry required for decoding "closed-caption" program signals. In this instance, the industry would transmit a signal concerning the violent content and parents could program their television set to block programs containing the identified signal. The successful implementation of this type of intervention would require the participation of the industry in rating and coding programs and the involvement of parents in responding to these ratings. Although there are questions about the impact of this V-chip approach, there is evidence from the Hamilton (1994) study that parents may be responsive to viewer warnings in relation to young children.

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