The Market For Children’s Television, And A Market Failure In Criticism?

Our conversation about the FCC’s attempts to regulate children’s television earlier this week and Peter Suderman’s post expressing skepticism of the whole enterprise (with which I largely agree) have made me realize I don’t have a very good sense of how the market for children’s television works. Obviously, FCC limitations means there’s less potential for advertising in any given hour of television, but it seems like that advertising’s more likely to be effective because the content of the show narrows the audience down to advertisers’ preferred market. You don’t have to worry that you’re going to get a good overall audience but that the ratings won’t be high enough in the demo. I have no idea if the Children’s Programming Emmy Awards actually drive viewership at all. Mainstream publications like the New York Times don’t really appear to review children’s programming, and a quick jaunt through Parenting and Family Circle magazines suggests that they do a lot of list-like guides, but don’t provide a regular stream of comprehensive reviews of new shows.

So it seems we have a couple of problems. It’s not really clear that networks want to produce children’s programs, even as pay channels do, but the government feels there’s got to be some children’s programming available to people who don’t have pay cable. And Peter’s right to say that parents should make informed decisions about what their children watch, but it doesn’t really seem like there’s great information available without a major search that goes beyond ratings and plot summaries.

I can rattle off the names of dozens of television critics in a heartbeat, but I can’t think of one influential critic who regularly writes about programming for children in a way that’s aimed at helping parents decide what shows their children might enjoy from those they benefit from, rather than addressing children’s television as a matter of nostalgia. I’ll admit that I am not the target demographic for such criticism, but there does seem to be an odd gap between the amount of attention that we give children’s and young adult fiction in book form and the amount of critical attention to children’s and young adult television. Part of the problem may be that there isn’t really much in the way of young adult television at all — one of the complaints from parents in the GAO report I wrote about in that original post was that there aren’t many programs that are targeted at children over the age of 8. And so perhaps rather than seeing children’s television as part of a continuum with the programming we’ll watch as adults, we see them as entirely different animals: television for kids is instruction, while television for the rest of us is culture (and some commenters suggested this is actually what parents want, but it still seems like better information about what achieves that would be useful).

I don’t know what the fix is here, but it does seem like we have a scenario where a lot of people are unhappy, or feel like the market isn’t shaking out right. If we want a mix of network programming that includes Dora the Explorer, and The Adventures of Pete and Pete, Arthur and Ghostwriter, uses of the medium that help children learn both educational basics and how to be consumers of more sophisticated culture, something has to change. I don’t think regulation’s going to magically produce this regime, but I don’t know that the market, as it currently exists, is helping parents become informed consumers either.