President Bush, torn between the political appeal of a bill to regulate children's television and concern that it unconstitutionally restricts broadcasters, is likely to allow the bill to become law without his signature, administration sources said yesterday.
The measure passed the House Monday after winning Senate approval a week earlier. In a clear break with Reagan-era deregulatory philosophy, it would require broadcasters to air educational programming for children as a condition of license renewal and to limit the number of commercials on children's shows.
The sources said it was still possible that Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, who helped persuade President Ronald Reagan to veto a similar bill in 1988, might persuade Bush to do the same. "At this point we're still opposed to the bill," said Justice Department spokesman Dan Eramian.
The White House also has "First Amendment" concerns about "government deciding what's adequate and what's not adequate," spokeswoman Alixe Glen said. She also said the measure could "damage programming for children" by cutting into advertising revenue.
Attorney Bruce Fein, who was general counsel at the Federal Communications Commission during the Reagan administration, said that for Bush to allow the bill to become law without his signature would be "like saying he's a little bit pregnant. It's typical George Bush. He doesn't want to stake out a position that will anger anybody."
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chief sponsor of the House bill, said it appeared Bush had decided to "avoid a fight that would have resulted in an override of a veto." At the same time, he said, "I think the education president should be signing a children's television bill enthusiastically."
Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television, which lobbied for the measure, said it would mark an end to what she called Reagan's "what's-good-for-CBS-is-good-for-children philosophy, or 'Let them eat cable.' "
Charren said any First Amendment objections are misplaced because "television is not just a business. Television stations are public trustees. The broadcasters don't own the airwaves."
The bill directs the FCC to consider when renewing broadcast licenses whether television stations are airing programs "specifically designed" to meet children's educational needs. The current law only vaguely defines broadcasters' responsibility to serve the "public interest."
When the regulatory reins were loosened in the 1980s, broadcasters responded with a spate of children's programs such as "He-Man" and "Thundercats" that seemed little more than half-hour commercials for the latest toys. The bill directs the FCC to complete an inquiry into such "program-length commercials," although even advocates say it is not clear how such programs could be banned without also restricting educational shows -- such as "Sesame Street" -- which have given rise to a mammoth line of toys, T-shirts and trinkets.
Years ago, Charren said, "You had Shirley Temple movies and I had my Shirley Temple doll. The Jetsons had a lunchbox. But the toy companies and broadcasters got so greedy in the '80s that they looked at the toys and said, 'Let's make the programs based on the toys.' It kept all the other stuff off the air. . . . It was like having the public libraries filled with comic books."
In 1984, the FCC rescinded guidelines that limited commercials during children's shows. The new law would limit such commercials to 10 1/2 minutes per hour on weekends and 12 minutes on weekdays. Charren said few shows exceed this level and that the ceiling is "so high it's almost embarrassing to talk about."
The National Association of Broadcasters called the bill "a good compromise" that addresses "overcommercialization in children's TV and cable programs but avoids unnecessary and unconstitutional programming standards."
But Fein, referring to Charren's organization, said Congress had "succumbed to this pressure group." He said the bill represents "a collision course between the government desire to regulate the airwaves for some special interest group and the right of free speech."