Perhaps when watching children’s television shows with your family, you’ve noticed a symbol with an “E/I” in the corner of your screen. This stands for “Educational/Informative,” and started to show up when the FCC enacted the Children’s Television Act in 1990. Using research showing that children watch an average of three hours of TV per day, the CTA required programmers to define the type of programs they were airing and to provide a minimum three hours of E/I programming per week between the hours of 7am and 10pm.
Sounds great, right? But only when it works, which seems not to be the case. Yesterday in Washington, D.C., a non-profit organization called Children Now released a report of the educational quality in children’s television programming entitled “Educationally/Insufficient? An Analysis of the Availability and Educational Quality of Children’s E/I Programming.” Some of the key findings in the study include:
- 1 in 8 of children’s television shows meet the criteria for “highly educational”
- Only 25% of broadcasters deliver any e/i content during weekdays, instead relegating it to weekends–a practice denounced by the FCC as far back as 1974
- E/I shows aired on commercial (as opposed to public) broadcasts are far more likely to use a high amount of physical aggression as a function of the lesson, regardless of the targeted age group
- Commercial E/I programs dedicate 3% of their content to art, 3% to health/nutrition, and 1% to math
- According to the Annenburg Center Reports, E/I programs judged as highly educational made up 29% of total E/I programs in 1997-1998. That number dropped to 20% in 2000, and has continued to drop to its current low of 13%
The most troubling part of the report is the last bullet. One would hope or even expect that as time passes and more research is conducted, the educational quality of E/I programs would improve rather than steadily diminish. Yes, this is another argument for media literacy, but in this case the lesson is perhaps most heavily applied to parents. We have stressed the importance of making media a family affair–parents must be involved in their children’s media habits, watching their TV shows and talking to them about what they do online. It is not safe to assume that your child is learning every time they watch a program with an E/I symbol. If we as a culture demand higher quality programming and loudly refuse to accept what is currently excused as E/I, the landscape of children’s media can and will change. The FCC has power, yes, but not as much power as you when it comes to determining what shows are good for your family.