No Commercials for My Kid

It’s probably not a big surprise, but I didn’t start watching much childrens’ television until I became a parent; not counting my occasional visits to Nickelodeon to catch reruns of cartoons like Rugrats, Rocko’s Modern Life, and The Angry Beavers. But after Parker was born, I became more aware of the commercials on some of the kids’ networks, and it occurred to me that maybe I didn’t want my kid advertised to by McDonals, Burger King, and the like, every 15 minutes. Neither did the hubby.

I bring this up, because I only recently learned of FCC rules to limit commercials on childrens’ television.

The government has long set guidelines for broadcasters to set aside a certain amount of educational programming for children — currently, three hours per week — with commercials limited to 12 minutes per hour of kids’ programming on weekdays and 10.5 minutes on weekends.

But the FCC has formulated new rules to take into account the nation’s move toward digital transmission of TV signals and the phaseout of analog broadcasting. Moving to digital transmission will allow stations to broadcast several channels where they could only show one before.

The new FCC rules would extend the children’s programming requirements to those new channels, something the major entertainment companies are resisting. They argue that the new channels could be useful for formats that are not conducive to kids’ shows, such as weather or news channels. The rules also would limit the amount of time broadcasters can put commercial Web addresses on the screen, which the companies think would be a handicap in a digital world where people can hop from a TV show to a Web site with a single click.

…Advocates say the rules are needed to ensure that children get some television with educational value and to protect them from commercial pitches on the Internet.

Of course, the industry is fighting the extension of the children’s programming rules.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that too much television is not good for kids (of course, neither is too much fruit or too many vitamins). I get that no amount of commercials can take away parents’ ability to say “no” (though they contribute mightily to the “wear-down factor”). But I still think that, ideally, children’s programming should be commercial-free, or as commercial-free as possible.

For that reason PBS Kids is pretty big in our house. It’s educational, and it has no commercials (if you don’t count the brief sponsorship announcements at the beginning of each show), so when if the television is on during Parker’s waking hours, it’s on PBS Kids. Unfortunately, in the past couple of weeks, PBS Kids morphed into PBS Kids Sprout. It’s a big difference from the old channel.

Here’s what’s different: most of the shows are now 15 minutes instead of 30 which means you only get one episode of Thomas the Train or Dragon Tales instead of two each segment. And the cynical part of me says that means kids are exposed to twice as many brands they’ll want to buy toys from. There are some commercials.

You head that right. Commercials. On PBS.

The programming may be familiar – it is being fashioned out of reruns of some of public television’s most beloved shows, like “Sesame Street” and “Barney and Friends” – but the format won’t be. This PBS channel will carry ads. (emphasis added)

In our house, we were decidedly less than amused with the switch. The commercials are one problem. Another is the 15-minute format. Previously, the shows were half an hour, which not only allowed us to plan Parker’s TV time with more ease, but it also allowed for Parker to wander around the room playing while the television was on, which was his habit instead of sitting and staring at the TV. But with the 15 minutes shows, that’s what he did. Sat and stared, because he was more likely to miss something if he didn’t.

The third problem is the new “shows” (if something only 15 minutes long can be called a “show”). Take Pingu, for example.


The show has little to no educational value whatsoever. It doesn’t help with language skills because the characters in the show speak some non-language called “Penguinese.” The show also models some undesirable behavior. The hubby was particularly appalled at one episode in which the title character pretended to eat his vegetables so that he could play. He was then shown throwing them up into the toilet before he went out to play.

It took us less than one day to turn off PBS Sprout, and we won’t be turning it back on again.

I’d been meaning to complain to PBS about the switch, but in a rare incident of kismet during yesterday’s conference I found myself eating lunch right next to a couple of women from PBS, who turned out to be the very people who would probably end up hearing that complaint if I sent it in (and it made its way up the ladder to them). I didn’t vent, but I did express some disappointment in the new format, and asked why it was done.

The answer that came back can be summed up in one word: money. PBS had to find a way to increase revenues, because it just wasn’t going to get any more money out of the Republican congress or the White House. Remember when Margaret Spellings urged PBS not to air an episode of Postcards from Buster and suggested the station give back the money used to produce the episode, because it features a family with two lesbian moms? Remember earlier this year when a House Subcommittee voted to sharply reduce PBS funding, and eliminate it entirely within two years? Here we have the logical conclusion of conservatives schemes around PBS. Corporations get the keys to our kids minds.

That is, unless parents change the locks by taking more active control. PBS Sprout is off in our house, permanently. Fortunately, Tivo — combined with local PBS stations that are still carrying the old shows in old format — has come to the rescue, along with Noggin — another commercial free kids channel with a couple of shows Parker likes.

Of course, it also means that he’ll probably spend less time with the television on, and more time playing and doing other activities. So perhaps it’s for the best.

But I still feel a little sold out by PBS.

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About Terrance

Black. Gay. Father. Buddhist. Vegetarian. Liberal.
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6 Responses to No Commercials for My Kid

  1. James Redekop says:

    A lot of good cartoons are available on DVD these days. Most of my TV series watching is on DVD, not broadcast. A good library of half-hour, commercial-free cartoons could be a great antitode for the current commercial TV situation.

    Rocko & Angry Beavers need to come out on DVD! Fans managed to get a DVD release of Invader Zim, so we should be able to convince them to do the same for other shows.

  2. lorin11 says:

    PBS has always been endangered. Mr. Rogers saved it in 1969, but it has always been under attack. I go back to the NET days, when public broadcasting was so small that they showed up at my nursery school to televise our Christmas pageant. And it has become increasingly corporate over the years. What I do is support some of the outlier stations. There is a small station started a few years ago, which concentrates on the broader urban community. There is a station up in Allentown, which still does an auction every year to raise money. The large station in town needs big bucks, so it is most easily co-opted.
    And I have lots of tapes. All the Thomas tapes, lots of Sesame Street, Dr. Seuss, and a few Mr. Rogers. Since Evan is autistic, he actually likes watching the same things over and over again. And he has learned his letters and numbers, and a great many words, that way.
    We didn’t have a TV until I was 8. So I read all of the time. No commercials in books.

  3. Rachel S says:

    I have mixed feelings on this. I do think the comercialism in this country is way over the top, but we can only shelter kids from it for so long. I think at some point (especially when they start school) we have to teach them how to decipher these materialistic messages that saturate this culture. They need to be educated on how the adds are not realistic. Your son is still really young, but in few years it is going to be really hard to keep the commercials out (not that I don’t advocate trying to avoid them, but I think realistically it becomes impossible at a point). I guess I think this way about sex too. Small children can be sheltered from it, but at some point, they need to be educated so they know how to make responsible decisions. If we hide too much, we can set them up to confront a world they are not prepared for.

  4. Tim Who? says:

    I consider commercials to be an insidious attack on people in general and children specifically. The spend million studying how we react to colors shapes and sounds and do their best to overwhelm us. Its a contest and they’re winning.

    I feel that people that create such advertising for children’s programs should be locked in a cell and forced to watch those commercials all day long.

    I talk the talk and walk the walk, I sold my TV four years ago and never looked back and don’t even think about it. At this point in time I can’t believe I was paying over a hundred bucks a month for that crap! (cable)

    Turn the TV off and read Parker a book. And if he really must watch some TV then start a DVD collection and let him watch shows without commercials that you have pre-approved.

  5. hope says:

    I have always sharply limited TV – both amount and content. PBS was the only station my kids ever watched. But in January I turned the TV off completely. Given an inch, my kids want a mile, and I just wasn’t willing to keep fighting about it. So now the rule is no TV. I let them watch a video sometimes on weekends, but that’s it.

  6. Hyper says:

    This is such a well-written article, T. I was raised with ONLY public television in the house–concerts, nature shows, Sesame Street and The Electric Company. Otherwise I was made to play outdoors. But you’ve made a lot of good points here that need to be made. Bravo.

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