What Does the Symbol E/I Mean on Children's Programming?

How this standard started and what the rules are today

If you see the E/I symbol during a children's television show, it means the program meets FCC standards for educational and informational kids' programming. Here's a look at the history of E/I programming in broadcasting and where the rules stand today.

The E/I symbol appears when the symbols for the TV parental guideline rating and close captioning go off.

Children watching TV
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The Original Children's Television Act of 1990

After activists campaigned for higher-quality children's television, Congress passed the Children's Television Act (CTA) in 1990. The CTA was also known as the E/I rules or the Kid Vid rules.

Under the CTA, a portion of a station or cable channel's programming had to be designed to educate children. Stations were required to report to the FCC about how they fulfilled this obligation. They also had to keep and publish summaries of their educational programs for parents and consumers.

The FCC incentivized stations and cable companies to increase their educational and informative children's content by making it a factor in their license renewal.

There were advertising rules imposed, as well. Stations had to limit commercial time to 12 minutes per half-hour on weekdays and 10.5 minutes per half-hour on weekends. Commercials couldn't sell toys or other products related to the program because they wanted to avoid these shows seeming like ads.

In general, programs and ads had to be clearly defined, so as not to confuse children.

CAT Fine-Tuning

While the 1990 CAT had the best of intentions, it faced opposition from free-speech advocates. Stations largely ignored the requirements for keeping detailed records. Many tried to pass off programs that weren't particularly educational, such as The Flinstones, as E/I programming.

In 1996, stronger regulations, known as the Children's Programming Report and Order, were enacted. The goal was to give stations more concise rules to follow and to boost public awareness of educational programming. Specifically, stations had to have at least three hours per week of core educational programming broadcast between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. These shows were required to use the E/I label to both identify and promote educational programming.

Stations also had to write up a quarterly Children's Television Programming Report, detailing their educational programming and future plans, and offering viewers a way to contact them and ask questions.

Core educational programming is at least 30 minutes in length and designed to serve the educational and informational needs of children ages 16 and younger.

E/I Changes Through Today

More changes were enacted in 2006 ahead of the transition to digital TV. The newest rules required an additional half-hour of E/I programming for every 28 hours of programming on a station's sub-channels. The FCC required the E/I logo to stay onscreen throughout the program and put limitations on how often a station could reschedule or move an E/I program.

Rules also were added to restrict commercials about websites, saying they couldn't contain any commercial or e-commerce content.

In 2019, more new rules were enacted, giving added flexibility to TV stations and cable channels amid changing viewing habits and a different broadcasting marketplace.

Stations were allowed to air E/I programming as early as 6 a.m., rather than 7 a.m., through 10 p.m. Stations were permitted to use up to 52 hours of E/I programming in the form of specials or short-form content, rather than traditional shows. They were also allowed to offload some of their E/I obligations onto a multicast stream, rather than their primary broadcast channel.

These changes received mixed reviews. Some felt these were necessary modifications to adapt to a changing world. In contrast, others felt these changes made E/I programming more difficult for parents to find.