Grade-school kids now a target for public TV shows
Originally published in Current, Feb. 12, 1996
By Karen Everhart Bedford
School-age children have always been a difficult audience for public television to serve. Over the years, offerings for them have come and gone, never really backed up by the kind of commitment needed to serve kids aged 6-11 consistently.
In recent years, PBS has taken steps to reverse that trend, and has been so successful in building a pipeline of new shows that by fall 1996 public TV stations will have more programs for school-aged kids than some of them know what to do with.
In addition, a new package of station-break animation called "The Game,'' recently unveiled to stations, aims to make public TV's service even more attractive to older kids. The on-air package distinguishes the growing block of after-school programs from those targeted to preschoolers, and carries the messages, " 'It's fun to be smart. Smart isn't boring. It's fun to know things,' '' said Brenda Nesbitt, PBS's director of creative services.
The spots serve another purpose, acting as an on-air bookmark that "sticks out so you can find your place,'' said Alice Cahn, PBS's director of children's programming. They help to showcase PBS's offerings and make them easier for grade-school kids to find.
Which is all very necessary in the cluttered media environment of the '90s, especially to grade schoolers who are wooed constantly by the Fox network and cable channels.
"School-age kids don't have a lot of programming available to them, beyond cartoons,'' said Alice Myatt, a creative director for New Kid City, Children's Television Workshop's venture into cable and multimedia. Fox's afternoon offerings are appealing, but "as far as things that have any depth and any educational value, there's not a lot.''
"There really needs to be something on free TV that addresses them,'' she added.
"PBS has recognized that kids who are graduating from their wonderful preschool programs need a place to go,'' said David Kleeman, director of the American Center for Children's Television. "If public television wants to keep them loyal, to keep them watching, they need programs to do that. For a while I think they were giving up on kids as soon as they graduated from Reading Rainbow.''
"PBS and stations understand that children's programming--high quality, highly educational children's programming in particular--is one of the reasons that public television should exist,'' said Kate Taylor, a children's programming executive at WGBH, Boston. "If we don't have a strong service in that realm, in the long term, there's less reason for us as a public system to exist.''
Cahn contends that public television has been serving school-age kids since the beginning with instructional programs and ground-breaking shows like Zoom in the early '70s. Later offerings included Electric Company, 3-2-1 Contact, Square One TV, and DeGrassi High.
What PBS is doing now is "solidifying public television's place as a provider of alternative programming for kids.''
School-age kids aren't the only ones to benefit from the expansion of PBS's offerings. Two upcoming series from WGBH aim to reach children who have outgrown Sesame Street but aren't ready for Ghostwriter. Arthur, a daily animated show about a boy aardvark growing up and exploring the world, debuts this fall. Between the Lions, a literacy series that CPB recently backed in a major program grant for the Ready to Learn Service, targets " 'tweens''--4- to 7-year-olds.
Some things old, some things new
By fall '96, stations will be able to air up to 2.5 hours of daily programs for school-age children. The National Program Service spent more than $22.7 million on the line-up, and several more renewal agreements are pending, according to Catherine Lyon, associate director of children's programming.
The next new series to join the schedule, Kratts' Creatures, is a nontraditional nature program that introduces children to wildlife by "hanging out'' with animals in their natural habitat, said Chris Kratt, one of the series' creators, during a session at the television critics' recent press tour. Several public TV programmers and producers expressed enthusiasm for the show in interviews with Current.
Another new series planned for the fall--Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego?--is a spin-off of the long-running geography game show, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?. It will be a "wholly different show,'' quizzing contestants about history, according to Kate Taylor, coexecutive producer. Games will not only test contestants' knowledge, but give them information to be used later in the show.
"We really felt it was very important to offer the audience a brand-new show,'' said Taylor. Kids who liked the old Carmen will "see they're getting something new and fresh and different.''
Taylor also is working on a '90s version of Zoom. A pilot funded by CPB tested "extremely well'' with grade-school kids. Preliminary results indicate the show met its goals and "kids are entertained by the content, as opposed to the stuff that's around the content.'' The challenge now will be to find funding for the show.
Also this fall, Magic School Bus, Scholastic Productions' animated weekly show that follows the science adventures of Ms. Frizzle and her students, becomes available as a daily strip. The show has proven quite successful at attracting kids as young as three and as old as 11, according to Ellen Wartella, communications dean at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the series advisory board. "Children of all ages take from that show what they can understand and they always find it entertaining.''
Wartella confessed that she's also a fan of Wishbone, a series about a cute little terrier imagining himself in scenes from classic literature. "It's whimsical, has historical information and is fun to watch.''
These programs demonstrate that "you can have an educational show that's also entertaining,'' said Wartella. However, PBS is no longer alone in offering good programs for kids, she noted.
And this point is not lost on Taylor. Now that commercial television is beginning to produce programs that offer "some semblence of education,'' public TV "needs to further ratchet up our standards.''
"I really do feel that we need more and more to distinguish ourselves from our commercial counterparts,'' Taylor added. "We have to let our audience know we are really doing something different and, at the same time, making an effort to attract the kids.''
More to choose from
For various reasons, public television stations up to now have been reluctant to devote much of their airtime and limited program dollars to children in their grade school years.
Preschoolers--well served by PBS--are a much different audience than older children, several observers noted. "They have very similar needs and interests,'' said children's television advocate Peggy Charren. "They're concerned about falling down the drain, mama going out and not coming back, going to school and learning to read.''
What's more, they're available throughout the day as potential viewers, and willing to watch what their parents want them to watch, said Cahn. Given the choice of Barney & Friends or Ricki Lake, they would choose Barney.
Grade school kids not only are less available as viewers, but their interests are more diverse. They're enticed by other channels that chase them with product-driven programs sponsored by toy manufacturers and cereal companies. They also can be easily titillated by afternoon schlock-talk or soap operas.
Some in public television have been resigned to losing children's viewership as they graduate from its preschool offerings, although in the age of Ready to Learn, it's politically incorrect to say so.
"There's always been a debate about what age groups we can attract to public television,'' acknowledged Kevin Harris, who is the programmer for both KQED in San Francisco and New Hampshire PTV. "Historically, the ages after five are very hard to reach for any TV station, let alone public television.''
He is struggling with how to schedule all these new shows. KQED offers ITV programming during the day and Harris doesn't have openings for many school-age offerings. "I can't say a bad thing about the good intentions of trying to increase good children's programming. But, from a programming perspective, there is a problem.''
WPSX in University Park, Pa., has daytime instructional TV commitments to schools similar to KQED's, and Kathleen Pavelko, assistant g.m., also is uncertain of how to use all the shows. "We must be careful to distinguish between a scheduling problem at the station level and PBS's initiative to bring very good programming to this age group.''
"It's important for stations to realize that it's a station problem and not PBS's fault.''
Although Ken Lawrence, programmer at Houston's KUHT, was disappointed that the recent addition of Wishbone to the schedule did nothing to improve late afternoon viewership of his station, he also expressed support for what PBS is attempting to do. "It seems worthwhile to make the effort to keep those kids. We do provide an alternative to whatever else is on.''
"The fact that someone else is going after them with slick products like the Power Rangers is all the more reason for us to serve them.''
PBS offerings for school-age kids to keep on growingSeries, age target, episodes Rights expire Plans for future Bill Nye the Science Guy--8 to 12--65 Oct. 1997 Twenty new episodes debut this fall. Kratts' Creatures--8 to 12--50 June 1999 Debuts as a strip this June. Ghostwriter--8 to 12--40 Sept. 1996 Available in commercial syndication. PBS is exploring how to use its extant rights. Magic School Bus--7 to 10--39 Oct. 1998 Begins airing as a daily strip this fall. Where in Time Is C.S.?--8 to 12--65 Oct. 1997* Debuts this fall. Where in World Is C.S.?--8 to 12--65 Oct. 1996 Educational rights are one year from broadcast. Wishbone--6 to 11--40 Aug. 1998 Renewal pending. Source: PBS children's programming office. *If aired as a strip
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