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THE DIRTY LITTLE SECRET OF EDUCATIONAL TV

Jan 8, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 16 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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The discussion of children's television in Washington has tended to center around a constitutional question: Does the government have the right to impose content controls on broadcasting? Broadcasters have a ready answer for this. Of course not, they say, any more than government has the right to tell newspapers or magazines what to print. But they are tripped up, struck dumb, when the discussion turns away from their rights and toward their obligations - - their duty as good citizens to have a concern for the welfare of the next generation. Even if broadcasters have a right to produce mind-rotting junk cartoons for children, are they justified in doing so?


Newton Minow, who famously called television "a vast wasteland" when he was President Kennedy's FCC commissioner, asks just this question in his new book, Abandoned in the Wasteland: Children, Television and the First Amendment ( written with Craig L. Lamay). Are broadcasters like tobacco companies, whose indisputably legal activities are nevertheless increasingly regarded by the press and the public as morally tainted? Minow and Lamay conclude that they are. But they do so only by virtue of having made the same assumption that nearly everyone involved in the debate makes -- that it is easy to define what the Children's Television Act of 1990 calls "the educational and informational needs" of America's TV-addicted children.


After all, everybody knows that Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow and Bill Nye the Science Guy are "educational" (partly because they usually app ear on PBS, which, older readers will remember, used to be called National Educ ational Television); everybody knows, too, that the commercial cartoon series Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, and Batman are not "educational" -- at least not in the sense of being thought wholesome and desirable for children to watch. But is what everybody knows the truth?


Evidence is hard to come by. Indeed, the entire research history of the study of the effects of children's programming is relegated to a single footnote in the FCC's 50-page "Notice of Proposed Rule Making" of April 7, 1995, on new ideas for the enforcement of the Children's Television Act. Proponents cite a new study by Aletha C. Huston and John C. Wright of the Center for Research on the Influences of Television on Children at the University of Kansas, which concludes that Sesame Street and its like are good for kids because "preschoolers in low-income areas around Kansas City who had watched educational television programming, including Sesame Street, not only were better prepared for school but actually performed better on verbal and math tests as late as age 7 than would have been expected otherwise. " Better than what? Better than a control group of children who watched "adult programming and educational cartoons." Oh, by the way, the study was sponsored by the Children's Television Workshop, producers of Sesame Street.


Even supposing that the findings of Huston and Wright (from a sample of only 250) are accurate -- who is to say that the researchers are not trying to establish, as Dr. Johnson put it, the precedence between a louse and a flea? If it is marginally better to watch Sesame Street than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, does it follow that it is good to watch either? And what about the effects, if any, after age 7? Thomas D. Cook of Northwestern University concluded the opposite -- that "kids who watched for a season gained about two letters of the alphabet."


The truth that everybody really does know, but doesn't quite say, is this: TV, whether "commercial" or "educational," isn't good for you. It isn't good for adults, and it's worse for children. Given that we do not live in the sort of society in which it is possible to ban it, but rather in a society in which parents are eager to offload their responsibilities for limiting the damage onto politicians and policymakers, the latter have a strong incentive to foster the illusion that TV can be made into a Force for Good. If only the government regulates it properly, the adherents of educational television fondly suppose, the cathode-ray tube will become a window on the world, a universal access point to the arts and sciences of mankind, one that will transform us through the miracle of technology into a nation of scholars and poets, of connoisseurs and craftsmen, of geniuses and gentlefolk.