photo of little girl fascinated with person in Muppet suit
A fan from Miami meets Rosie Marie, a Muppet from Sesame Street. (Photo: WLRN.)
Specializing in TV that's good for kids

This Briefing pulls together articles from Current that look at public TV's services for children.



It takes only a few minutes, watching various children's TV programs, to see that they are not all alike. Some pander to kids' fascination with fast action and violence in order to bring the biggest available audiences to advertisers. Fewer demonstrate much genuine interest in kids' needs, including the development of social and learning skills. For all of its time on the air, public TV has specialized in the latter.

The media scholar George Gerbner provides some historical context. He contrasts the constructive and destructive sides of TV, and names Fred Rogers as a genuine hero for his nourishing work on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and earlier programs for some 40 years.

Programs also differ to meet the needs of different age groups. PBS is especially strong among preschoolers, whose viewing is often directed by parents, but older kids are attracted to commercial networks, including programs made for adults, though in recent years PBS has been developing new shows for school-age children.

Many children's shows on public TV, notably Sesame Street, try to engage the parents with the children, and some are so successful at operating on multiple levels that they have huge, unintended audiences of teenagers and single adults. (Sesame Street was so successful at reaching its first generation audience that it was voted one of the top 15 icons of the 1970s, and the Postal Service issued a stamp featuring Big Bird.)

Sesame Street veterans developed the reading series for young children, Between the Lions, which was supposed to pick up where Sesame Street leaves off. The series has the strong curriculum recommended in a 2002 study of PBS children's programming. "The obligation of public media is to find ways to take on hard learning," said the report commissioned by the Markle Foundation and PBS. The network reconsidered its plans to end its funding of the series.

Ready to learn

In the past few years, public TV — as it clarifies its purposes — has concentrated on preparing little kids for the critical start of their school careers, under the rubric of "ready to learn." The phrase came from Ready to Learn: A Mandate for the Nation, a 1991 book by the late Ernest L. Boyer, school reformer and head of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Boyer proposed a range of educational, nutritional and developmental aid to preschool kids who might otherwise fall behind in school and never catch up.

Public broadcasters recognized their part of the job: adding to public TV's preschool offerings that prepare kids for the classroom and encourage an interest in reading and learning. In response to a query from Congress, CPB proposed in February 1993 that at least one public TV station in every city carry a full day of 10-12 hours of preschooler programming—about double what stations typically carried. Station reaction varied; some local stations opened up solid blocks of children's programming in the daytime by switching classroom programming to overnight hours (when teachers can have their VCRs tape it).

In July 1994, PBS and 11 stations began a pilot Ready to Learn Service called "PTV" (an apparent play on the name "MTV") and featuring a bunch of cartoon hosts, the P-Pals, during station breaks. Compared to earlier cost estimates, federal appropriations were small—the first was $7 million for fiscal 1996.

Local public TV stations already had been working for several years on projects to help childcare workers and parents make best use of educational kidvid—as a catalyst for reading, discussion and activities, not as a boob-tube babysitter. Separate projects were built around Sesame Street in Dallas and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood in Toledo. The PBS Ready to Learn Service incorporated these projects, putting a major effort into "outreach"—a combination of teacher-training and promotion.

Almost from the start, a nonprofit organization called First Book supplied books to be distributed to children through the Ready to Learn Service.

By fall 1996, the service was expanding from 44 public TV stations to 95 around the country, with expanded programming and outreach workers in each community, despite limited aid from Congress and corporate underwriters.

The programs

Public TV already offered a variety of proven series for preschoolers, including Sesame Street, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and Reading Rainbow, and had begun the long process of developing a major new series that teaches about social relationships, Puzzle Place.

But in 1992, PBS wanted to quickly beef up its preschool schedule, and added Barney & Friends, Lamb Chop's Play-Along and Shining Time Station to its schedule. Though the sugary Barney annoyed many adults, and PBS was going to cancel it, the series was saved by the enthusiasm of kids and their parents. Barney went on to become a huge merchandising success, which led to controversy on both sides:

In the congressional rhetoric, the financial gain from Barney product sales was greatly exaggerated, but there was great potential. Producers had already seen this, as well as public broadcasters' interest in airing more kidvid. In spring 1994, a Current survey found producers were proposing or already making 25 new children's projects, usually with star characters who would look good on a lunchbox or in a coloring book. (Many of the projects went nowhere.)

The financial potential of children's TV looked so bright that one production house with long experience, Lancit Media Productions (coproducer of Reading Rainbow and Puzzle Place with various public broadcasting stations) "went public"—selling stock to enable it to expand, but submitting it to a wild ride on Wall Street. After Puzzle Place had been on-air for a while, Lancit and KCET announced plans for a chain of entertainment supercenters for children.

Other new programs joined the public TV lineup, including Magic School Bus and Arthur, both animated series based on popular children's books. Also in 1996, PBS announced Tots TV, Theodore Tugboat and Wild TV, and the American Program Service syndicated The Reppies.

WGBH raised funds for a comeback of its 1970s hit Zoom just in time to make it a favorite of the children of its earlier viewers.

In 1999, for a big $40 million commitment to animated programming, PBS turned to Nelvana, a Toronto-based production company, in 1999. Like other producers north of the border, Nelvana benefits from national policies that aid producers and favor nonviolent children's programs. When the resulting block of cartoons, the Bookworm Bunch, came to PBS in fall 2000, it faced stronger competition from improved cartoon efforts by ABC and CBS, with their links to Disney and Nickelodeon. Nelvana also offered its series Redwall to public TV, but through American Public Television instead of through PBS, which passed on the series because of the violence in its adventure tales of woodland creatures.

In 2000, alumni of Sesame Street put forth a new reading series, Between the Lions, intended to pick up where the older show leaves off. PBS considered new ways to keep the show going after it went out of production in 2002. In 2004, WGBH and Mississippi ETV proposed to put the show back into production on a smaller budget by moving it to Mississippi. The producers experimented meanwhile with adapted programs to see how well they teach English skills to American Indian and Spanish-speaking children. Two years ago a study recommended that PBS emphasize kids' programs with strong curricular value — like Lions.

Producers adjusted programs for younger children. In 1997 PBS imported Teletubbies for the youngest kids, and in 2002 Sesame Street revised its format to add more regular modules, based on new research into younger kids' learning and viewing patterns.

What commercial broadcasters could do

On the commercial side of TV, broadcasters have done very little educational programming for children—preschool or older—in recent years. The Children's Television Act of 1990 required all TV stations to serve "the educational and informational needs of children," but it lacked enforceable standards. Some commercial broadcasters claimed that reruns of The Flintstones and other such old programs fulfilled their public-service obligations to children.

Some commercial broadcasters did carry new educational kidvid shows in response, such as Beakman's World, a wacky science show. And, in one unusual deal, a public TV station produced an equally wacky science program for school-age kids, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and covered the cost through simultaneous runs in commercial syndication and on PBS.

In 1993, the FCC concluded that its regulations had not signficantly improved the quality of children's television and embarked on a lengthy process to tighten kidvid rules.

FCC Chairman Reed Hundt and others floated the idea that reluctant commercial broadcasters might be permitted to fulfill their educational kidvid responsibilities by "sponsoring" the programming on other channels—presumably public TV stations, in many cases. Public TV, which was threatened with loss of federal aid at the time, endorsed the sponsorship idea in fall 1995. But other advocates for children's TV, even including the producers of Sesame Street, warned against relieving commercial stations of the obligation to air educational kidvid themselves.

In the process, proponents also advised the FCC what makes good kidvid and should be required in its rules.

Hundt pushed for a requirement of only three hours a week of educational kidvid, but he lacked a majority on the FCC to adopt the rule. President Clinton broke the long stalemate with a July 1996 "summit" meeting of broadcasters at the White House. The summit also endorsed the idea of "sponsorship," which was soon incorporated in the FCC's new kidvid rules adopted in August 1996.

Every law has its unintended consequences. This new FCC rule did lead some broadcasters to choose better children's programs. But among those programs in 1997 was a PBS program, Magic School Bus, bought from its producer by the Fox network.

The producers of Sesame Street tried cable TV distribution of their work in partnership with Viacom, but in 2002 left the Noggin deal, reallocating resources. Sesame Workshops programs will continue to appear on the cable network, which remains noncommercial for now.



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