Big Bird has moved to HBO and kids can get their fill of shows aimed at them 24 hours a day on cable's Nickelodeon or internet sites such as YouTube Kids.
So is it still fair to force TV broadcasters, as part of their public service obligation, to put on three hours of children's programming in blocks of at least 30 minutes every week?
The broadcasters don't think so and are backing a proposal before the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to re-examine the decades-old requirements for educational programming. The agency voted 3-1 on Thursday to consider letting broadcasters shift the shows onto little-watched secondary digital channels, and asked about shedding the three-hour minimum altogether.
Supporters say the changes acknowledge that children are increasingly shunning TV and turning to online and cable programming.
"I view this as an opportunity to reflect the current marketplace," Michael O'Rielly, a Republican commissioner who drew up the proposals, said in an interview before the vote. "There has been an explosion in the past many years in children's programming with many different platforms offering services."
Not so fast, say some lawmakers and children's advocates.
"This rulemaking all but announces where we are headed—a future with less quality children's programming that is also harder for families to locate and watch," said Jessica Rosenworcel, the sole Democrat on the Republican-majority commission, moments before she dissented.
"Our rules for kids should be strengthened and never weakened," Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said at a news conference Wednesday. "These changes may reduce children's access to age-appropriate educational content, particularly for low-income children who are the main consumer of free over-the-air educational programming."
The FCC set the current rules for serving children in 1996, implementing the Children's Television Act that Congress passed in 1990 to ensure that viewers 16 and younger would be served by broadcasters.
O'Rielly, in a January blog post, cited programming on cable channels such as Disney Junior and Nickelodeon as well as online outlets Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. An agreement reached in 2015 between the nonprofit Sesame Workshop and premium cable channel HBO for programs featuring Big Bird and Elmo promises more new content each season, O'Rielly wrote.
Episodes of "Sesame Street" are broadcast on Public Broadcasting Service stations nine months after they first appear on HBO.
Kid Vid rules
The children's TV rules, sometime known by the shorthand Kid Vid, are "unnecessary" and "costly and burdensome," O'Rielly said in the blog post. "It is high time the commission consider whether the Kid Vid rules are still necessary," he wrote.
Besides, he wrote in the blog post, "everyone knows that peak attention span" of children is less than 30 minutes.
Jenny Radesky, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan, disputed that notion. She said children understand stories that run 20 to 30 minutes better than they do shorter fare.
The FCC, without offering a conclusion, asks about whether to retain the three-hour requirement in its 66-paragraph proposal passed with Thursday's vote. It calls for eliminating requirements that educational programs be regularly scheduled, and at least 30 minutes long. Changes won't occur before a second vote that hasn't been scheduled.
"Children of color and those whose families are of limited means will especially be harmed by adopting these tentative conclusions, because they are less able to afford cable, satellite, or broadband," Radesky said in a filing with the FCC. Other signers of the June 29 letter include the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the Center for Digital Democracy and Common Sense Media.
About 11 percent of American households with television, or around 12.4 million homes, relied solely on over-the-air broadcast as of November 2015, according to FCC figures.
The FCC in its notice setting up the vote said there's been "a major shift" in how viewers, including children, watch video. It didn't supply statistics for under-16 viewing.
Broadcasters offered their perspective.
"Children between the ages of eight and 18 spend a significant amount of time watching video content exhibited on YouTube and other online platforms," CBS Corp., the Walt Disney Co., 21st Century Fox and Univision Communications said in a filing. The companies asked the FCC to "revisit" the three-hour rule.
Television viewing by teenagers declined by more than a third over five years, as youngsters turned to digital video on YouTube, Facebook and other sources, the National Association of Broadcasters said in a filing.
The FCC "should modernize" the rules that reflect "a bygone era" of appointment viewing, the trade group said. For instance, broadcasters should be free to display children's shows on their secondary digital streams, the group said.
The group asked for more flexibility to reschedule children's programming that's preempted by sporting events, such as college football games that can start at midday in the eastern U.S. and interrupt regular programming in western markets.
They've caught the attention of at least one prominent figure in the debate: FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
"As the father of two young children, I know firsthand that the way kids watch video programming these days is very different than when I was growing up," said Pai, 45, in a statement. "But our children's television rules haven't kept up with the times."
-- Bloomberg News