Big Bird and children in scene from Sesame
The report proposed that many stations double their hours of preschooler programs like Sesame Street.

CPB recommends 'universal access' to full day of preschool programs

Originally published in Current, Feb. 15, 1993

By Steve Behrens

Public TV is the best electronic medium to bring a "ready to learn" service to preschoolers, CPB told Congress this month.

And devoting the whole daytime schedule of one PTV station in every community would "offer the greatest benefit to the greatest number of children."

Though the corporation's 93-page report responds to a congressional inquiry, it also speaks indirectly to the stations.

Carrying 10 to 12 hours of preschool programming a day--double the typical amount--"would represent a significant rededication and to some extent a redirection of public broadcasting," the report suggests.

But commercial broadcasters can't take on the job, and cable TV can't reach enough households, particularly in the lower-income brackets. Providing a ready-to-learn service, the report says, "is an opportunity that only public broadcasters can seize."

To do so, the field would need a big cash infusion. Based on projections by business planners from the Boston Consulting Group, the report estimates that first-year startup costs for programming, delivery and promotion for the recommended "universal access" over-the-air service would be between $102 million and $241 million, and annual costs thereafter would range from $42 million to $81 million.

The report, "Public Broadcasting: Ready to Teach," went to Congress Feb. 5 [1993] in answer to a directive inserted in last summer's CPB reauthorization bill by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).

It is the latest development for an educational policy bandwagon that began rolling in 1989, when a governors' conference adopted preschooler preparation as the first among six national education goals. The movement picked up steam with Ernest L. Boyer's book Ready to Learn: A Mandate for the Nation in 1991 and a $25 million authorization for "ready to learn" TV pushed through Congress last year by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

PBS responded by rushing new preschool series onto its schedule last spring. And in the private sector, the Learning Channel cable network recently added three hours (six hours, counting repeats) of commercial-free preschool shows.

Parallel to the CPB study, PBS is preparing a report with several options for discussion at its annual meeting June 18-22 [1993] in New Orleans and for possible experiments in selected cities later this year.

PBS has started by looking at the kinds of programs that young children need, without making assumptions about the desired volume or how it would be delivered, says Jackie Weiss, the project coordinator.

Four options sketched

Thanks to an early deadline from Congress, CPB has the pleasure of raising those questions first. In its report to Congress, the corporation sketched four options:

By including the "hybrid" and "fall-back" options, CPB acknowledges that 176 autonomous licensees may not reach a consensus to create a universal service, either over-the-air or on cable.

The stations' traditional local independence "makes unified, collective decision-making difficult and ... rare," the report says. "Very simply, there is no precedent in public television for the universal delivery of such an extensive schedule of programming."

Schedule conflict

At many stations, the "universal access" option would run head-on into the instructional TV service that was their founding purpose. Clearing out their daytime schedules from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. would displace hours of programs aimed at grade school or college students and disrupt long-term relationships and contracts with state and local governments and colleges.

Many other stations, however, already give much of their daytime schedules to preschoolers. PBS feeds four distinct hours of preschool programming per weekday, and--with repeats--the stations air an average of six hours per weekday, judging from a CPB spot survey. Some carry as many as nine hours of Sesame Street, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and the newcomers.

Very few station managers have read CPB's report so far, but some may require some convincing.

In Springfield, Mass., WGBY carries 5.5 hours of children's programming in the daytime, which has "the makings of a very strong ready-to-learn service," says General Manager Steve Bass. "I think the goals of this service are right on the money. The question becomes: do we have to devote a whole schedule to it?"

John Hershberger at KVIE, Sacramento, says he and other station execs who attended a PBS ready-to-learn planning meeting last week are sold on the educational objectives, if not the time commitment. "Some thought four hours is the right number; some thought 16 hours is the right number."

Thanks to repeats, a number of stations already carry a volume of children's programming similar to that proposed for the new service. WNIN in Evansville, Ind., for instance, gives all but two hours between 6 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. to programs for children of various ages, and President David Dial says he "wouldn't have a problem" with devoting it all to preschoolers. "It would give us a clear mission in our daytime. It would be highly promotable, and it would give us new strength for underwriting."

Where displaced programs go

The Evansville station can deliver so many hours of children's programming because it has the unusual advantage of operating two cable channels in addition to its broadcast channel. They carry ITV programs "on demand" during the day and college telecourses at night.

Likewise, KVIE in Sacramento uses an alternative means of delivering most of its ITV: broadcasting it at night for schools to capture on videocassette.

Even some stations with strong commitments to in-school programming are looking for alternative ways of getting it to the schools. South Carolina ETV, for example, is developing a 20-channel digital satellite system to deliver instructional programs directly through a dish at each school in the state, says Ron Schoenherr, senior v.p. So far, only 50 of the 1,120 schools have dishes, but the network is seeking grants to equip 200 or 300 at the cost of about $4,500 each, he says.

When the South Carolina network eventually moves ITV programming to the direct satellite route, it will be able to reprogram most of its daytime broadcast schedule. ITV programs now run from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays.

By deciding to move in-school ITV programs to satellite or cable or overnight broadcasts, the stations are recognizing that they can reallocate their broadcast channels to serve the general public, as no other video-distribution technology can.

CPB's report argues that it is a "sensible allocation of an increasingly scarce public resource" to use spectrum "for those services offering the greatest public benefit and needing to reach the broadest audience."

Don't blame TV

CPB's report, prepared with the help of Jerome and Dorothy Singer of Yale University's Family Television Research and Consultation Center, defends the television medium against common accusations.

Complaints about TV should focus on its inappropriate program content rather than on the medium itself, the report says. It argues that TV itself is not a cause of poor student achievement, passivity and shortened attention spans.

For preschoolers, TV need not be a passive experience, the authors contend. Programs for the ready-to-learn service would be a "fundamentally different kind of television" that encourages kids in the audience to interact with other children and with their parents and caregivers, and encourages them to read and participate in other activities.

The service would distribute activity guides and reading materials for that purpose.

The programs would be designed to help children aged two to five (and to a lesser extent, six to eight) develop specific skills they need to succeed in school.

And for parents and other adult caregivers, the service would provide general information on child development and parenting, follow-up suggestions related to specific preschool shows and training to help professional child-care personnel meet national standards.

Programming to provide even a "relatively low level of service" of eight hours per weekday (each show aired 10 times a year) would require doubling children's program production, with a total first-year cost of $57 million and ongoing cost of $7 million a year thereafter.

The present production rate would have to be increased seven-fold to reach the "high level" of service--16 hours of programming (each show aired five times a year). That would cost $274 million for initial productions and $34 million "ongoing costs" for reversioning and replacement series.

Public TV producers are now turning out preschool programs at the rate of 92.5 hours a year (182.5 hours if you count reversioned Sesame Street episodes). Costs per hour average $380,000 an hour.

In addition, CPB suggests that the service would need $15 million a year for promotion to make parents and caregivers aware of offerings and to continue attracting its audience as toddlers grow into the age group.


A preschool curriculum

CPB's "Ready to Teach" report includes an appendix listing 120 specific "readiness skills" that help preschool children cope in school--one of the most extensive lists yet published, the report said. Separate lists are given for infants, toddlers and older preschoolers. Here's a sampling of skills the older preschoolers are believed to need:



To Current's home page

Current Briefing: Kidvid that's good for kids?

Later news: PBS launches pilot Ready to Learn Service with 11 stations, July 1994.


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