The landmark Children’s Television Act of 1990 was designed to provide educational broadcast programming for kids while limiting the amount of advertising. But an exemption has allowed the five commercial broadcast networks to increase ad time while completely abandoning programming for kids under 13. It has meant the end of an era in Saturday morning kids’ shows.

Low ad rates and competition from kids’ cable channels as well as streaming platforms may partly explain the networks’ exodus from the preteen market, but a footnote in the FCC’s interpretation of the 1990 law made it possible. Under the agency’s rules, broadcast stations are required to run at least three hours of “educational and informational” children’s programming each week for kids 16 and under. To retain their licenses, broadcasters must also limit the amount of advertising aired during these so-called “core programs” to 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends, and to 12 minutes per hour on weekdays.

Net Neutrality

However, a footnote to the rule states that “for purposes of this section, ‘children’s programming’ refers to programs originally produced and broadcast primarily for an audience of children 12 years old and younger. If the target age for the children’s programming is over 12, the commercial limits do not apply.” This allows the stations to meet the FCC’s three-hours-a-week mandate by airing shows that only target kids aged 13-16.

To qualify for this exemption, and to run over 50% more ads than would be allowed on younger kids’ shows, all the stations have to do is tell the FCC that their target audience is children aged 13-16. And that’s what every ABC, CBS, Fox and CW station in the country has done. Quarterly reports they file with the FCC show that the target audience for every single one of their kids’ shows is now the 13-16 demographic. And NBC will be following suit later this year.

The FCC declined comment, saying: “We do not provide opinions outside our official process.”

Fox was the first to give up on the preteen audience; it hasn’t aired a show targeting kids under 13 since 2008. ABC switched to an all-13-16 demo in September 2011, when the network dropped all of its shows targeting kids 12 and younger. CBS discontinued all programming for preteens two years later, and the CW followed suit in 2014.

NBC, the last holdout, has confirmed that it will exit the preteen market in October when it switches to a three-hour bloc of Saturday morning shows targeting kids aged 13-16. “A big part of this programming switch is the audience who is watching it,” said a source familiar with the change. “The Today show airs prior to our block of children’s programming on Saturdays, and we found that we were losing that Today show audience. It’s such a huge leap to go from the Today show to 2-year-olds. The new programming will be a better fit.”

Under the law, the NBC stations’ current crop of Saturday morning educational shows aimed at younger kids can only air 5.25 minutes of commercials per half hour, but nearly all shows on the other networks that target kids aged 13-16 run at least eight minutes of ads – 2.75 minutes more. Over the course of a three-hour block of programming, that comes to an additional 16.5 minutes of advertising every Saturday.

Between the ads, kids who watch a three-hour block of programming are now exposed to hours of promotional tie-ins to the shows’ corporate sponsors.

LWA and ABC LOGO

A company called Litton Entertainment has been the single biggest beneficiary of this dramatic shift in the networks’ targeted demographic. Litton currently produces three-hour blocks of educational kids programming for ABC and CBS; a five-hour block for The CW; and beginning in October, another three-hour block for NBC. All are aimed at kids aged 13-16.

“Litton provides award-winning educational programming for teenage audiences,” Litton said. “We believe – and experts in child development and psychology agree – that our programming provides better educational value to that audience, and to others who watch our shows, than many of the cartoons they have replaced.”

Even with the demise of network programming for kids’ under 13, Litton said there are still plenty of shows for them to watch. In the Los Angeles market, the company said, “there are currently 941 30-minute programs airing each week aimed at the 12-and-under market, and only 226 aimed at the over-12 market.”

Sea Rescue
Litton Entertainment

Many of Litton’s shows promote their corporate underwriters. Sea Rescue on ABC, which won the Emmy last month for outstanding children’s series, is sponsored by SeaWorld and presented by SeaWorld Family Entertainment. On a recent episode, the host made several on-air references to the theme park, where much of the show is set and whose rescue teams help injured animals. On many of the episodes, the SeaWorld logo can be seen more than 50 times on the staff’s T-shirts and emblazoned on the sides of vehicles and boats.

A recent episode of ABC’s The Wildlife Docs, another Litton show, also referred to or showed the logo of its corporate sponsor, Busch Gardens, more than 50 times during the half-hour – eight minutes of which were devoted to commercials, including a 30-second spot for SeaWorld, a Busch Gardens sister company. Litton says that both shows average 1.4 million viewers each weekend.

“SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment is proud of the inspiring and educational television programming that Sea Rescue and The Wildlife Docs provides viewers,” said Elizabeth Bassler, the company’s manager of corporate communications. “We have a long history of providing high-quality, family entertainment while educating our fans about the rescue efforts of our team and partner organizations – whether it takes place inside or outside the park. Our partnership with Litton Entertainment for these two award-winning series continues that tradition of excellence.”

CBS Dream Team
CBS

Litton’s Game Changers, which airs Saturday mornings on CBS stations as part of the CBS Dream Team block, highlights inspirational stories about athletes who give back to their communities. It is sponsored by EA Sports, a subsidiary of Electronic Arts, the giant video game company. Each episode of the half-hour show, which includes 7.5 minutes of advertising, is “Presented by” and “Sponsored by” EA Sports, whose logo can be seen on-screen more than 30 different times on each show. Host Kevin Frazier even introduces the show as “AE Sports’ Game Changers,” though CBS doesn’t call it that on its website and CBS stations don’t refer to it as such in the quarterly reports they file with the FCC.

Each Game Changers also ends with a three-minute behind-the scenes-look – a mini-promotional film – about the making of one of EA Sports’ many video games, such as Madden NFL or NBA Live.

Lucky Dog
Bryan Curb/CBS

Unlike actual infomercials, which pay the stations to air their paid programming, Litton’s shows receive no license fees from the stations. “This is not paid programming,” Meg LaVigne, president of television at Litton, said, “but high-quality, award-winning content that relies, in part, on partnerships to deliver compelling stories to audiences across the country.”

The FCC’s ban on “host-selling” prohibits the use of “program talent or other identifiable program characteristics to deliver commercials during or adjacent to children’s programming featuring that character.” But ABC’s Jack Hanna’s Wildlife Countdown, another Litton show, gets around this rule because it says its target audience is kids aged 13-16, which qualifies it as a “core program” but exempts it from the “host-selling” rule.

Hanna makes numerous on-air references to the show’s co-sponsor, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and during commercial breaks of every episode makes a pitch for the show’s other co-sponsor, Nationwide insurance.

And while many Litton shows – like ABC’s Born To Explore, CBS’ Dr. Chris Pet Vet and the CW’s Dog Whisperer With Cesar Millan — don’t appear to have any corporate tie-ins, many others do. CBS’ Chicken Soup For The Soul’s Hidden Heroes promotes its corporate sponsor, Chicken Soup for the Soul; CBS half-hour drama The Inspectors promotes its financial backer, the United States Postal Inspection Service; and the CW’s Dream Quest, which is shot aboard the Norwegian Escape cruise liner, touts the show’s corporate sponsor, Norwegian Cruise Line. CBS’ The Henry Ford Innovation Nation also heavily promotes its sponsor, The Henry Ford, a Dearborn, MI-based museum whose name appears in the show’s title and in a recent episode was mentioned or shown on-screen more than 25 times, in addition to a 30-second ad for the museum.

Litton says the ads that air during its shows “are a far better alternative to the ads that have often previously aired during children’s programming, whose sole purpose was to sell less than beneficial products to children.”

“Not only have Litton and our partners helped move over-the-air children’s broadcasting away from hamburger clowns and toy-boy action figures, we have led the industry in aspirational storytelling that meets child psychologist-developed standards that did not exist prior to 1990,” Litton said. “This is exactly what the FCC was looking for in 1991 in implementing congressional intent.”

According to the FCC’s website, kids today watch more than three hours of television every day. “This invited ‘guest’ into our homes has the potential to significantly shape our children’s development,” the agency says. “In view of this, Congress determined that broadcast television stations – both commercial and non-commercial – have an obligation to offer educational and informational children’s programming.

“In addition, television licensees, cable operators and satellite providers must limit the amount of commercials aired during children’s programs.”

Because of the FCC exemption, however, kids are being exposed to more ads and sponsor tie-ins on the network’s Saturday morning shows than at any time since 1976. How it got this way dates back to 1968, when Boston-area stay-at-home-mom Peggy Charren turned on the TV one Saturday morning and was horrified to see all the cartoons and junk food ads her daughters were watching. It led her to launch Action for Children’s Television, a grassroots organization dedicated to improving kids’ TV shows and limiting the amount of advertising shown on them.

Charren and her supporters began lobbying the FCC, calling for it to ban all advertising and sponsorships on children’s programs, and requiring stations to broadcast no less than 14 hours of educational kids shows every week as part of their public service requirement including several weekly hours of shows for preschoolers aged 2-5; primary schoolers 6-9; and for elementary school kids 10-12.

In 1970, the FCC accepted ACT’s proposals as a petition for rule-making and invited public comments. The FCC, describing the response as “overwhelming,” received more than 100,000 comments. The general public expressed strong support for ACT’s general objectives; not surprisingly, the broadcast and advertising industries were mostly opposed.

In the wake of the public’s overwhelming support, and perhaps in apprehensive anticipation of FCC action, the broadcast industry undertook limited self-regulation. In 1972, the National Association of Broadcasters amended its code of practices to reduce advertising on kids shows from 16 minutes an hour to 12.

Over the next two years, the FCC hosted three days of panel discussions and three days of oral arguments on the full spectrum of children’s television practices. ACT then filed reply comments, arguing that “unless commercial pressures were eliminated, children would never receive adequate broadcast service.”

In June 1974, after a private meeting with FCC chairman Richard E. Wiley, newly appointed by President Richard Nixon, NAB officials announced they would further limit the amount of advertising on kids shows. Beginning in January 1975, they’d be reduced to 10 minutes per hour on weekends and to 14 minutes during the week, and that by January 1976, to 9.5 minutes an hour on weekends and 12 minutes during the week – less than is allowed today.

This self-regulation satisfied the FCC, which in October 1974 issued its Children’s Television Report and Policy Statement, which rejected all of ACT’s proposed rules. Charren and ACT promptly filed a petition for reconsideration, and when the FCC rejected it, took their case to court, arguing that the agency’s rule-making process “epitomizes abuse of administrative process” by its failure to solicit public comment on the industry’s proposals for self-regulation that had been negotiated “behind the closed doors of Chairman Wiley’s office in a private meeting with NAB officials.”

When the courts ruled against her in 1977, Charren began a decades-long battle to get Congress to act. President Ronald Reagan vetoed a bill she lobbied for in 1988, but she kept trying. Her efforts finally paid off when Congress passed the CTA in 1990, and President George H.W. Bush allowed it to become law without his signature. (Bush wouldn’t sign it because although he “wholeheartedly” supported its goal to improve children’s programming, he said, “To the extent that children’s programming is financed by the revenue from advertising … restrictions on the amount of advertising will tend to diminish, rather than enhance, the quantity and quality of children’s programming.”)

In 1991, the FCC issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order spelling out the new rules. And there, in Note 2 on the section limiting advertising on kids shows, it defined “children’s programming” as only those shows “produced and broadcast primarily for children 12 years old and younger.” That footnote would go on to end an era in broadcast history.

Charren, the activist whose lobbying led to the passage of the landmark kids TV law, died last year, but her daughters told Deadline that she’d be distraught by what’s going on.

“She would be disgusted,” said daughter Claudia Moquin. “She’s probably rolling over in her grave right now.”

Said daughter Debbie Charren: “All the work my mother did has vanished. Now it’s like the Children’s Television Act doesn’t exist anymore.”