Are stations ready for Ready to Learn?
If they back expanded preschool hours, system will seek funds from Congress

Originally published in Current, June 14, 1993

Kermit, a star of Sesame Street, visits Reading Rainbow.

By Steve Behrens

National leaders of public TV will hear in New Orleans this week whether the local leaders are willing to follow a plan for expanded preschool programming and related outreach services.

If most stations clear other programming off their daytime schedules and Congress provides the needed $50 million or so--neither event is inevitable--parents and caregivers of preschool children will have a wider choice of noncommercial and educational shows for the kids.

Based on a February report by CPB to Congress, PBS last month proposed a Ready to Learn service with at least eight hours a day of preschool programming--up from an average of five. In New Orleans June 19, the network will ask station leaders for their views about the plan in small group sessions at the Public Television Annual Meeting.

After holding focus groups with parents and caregivers and consulting with stations and childcare advocates, a PBS task force headed by staffer Jackie Weiss put forth three service options during its videoconference for the stations May 5. The favored proposal appears to be a service with eight hours of programming--Sesame Street and other existing preschool shows plus one or two new half-hour series and a parenting series.

In addition, half the cost of the project would be for additional station staffers to promote the broadcasts and other Ready to Learn services in the local communities.

PBS estimated the additional costs would come to about $72 million a year, of which $46 million would be sought from Congress and $26 million from underwriters and other revenue sources.

Congress already has indicated an interest, having passed a $25 million authorization. Funds have not been appropriated, however. The original bill by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) would have authorized $50 million.

In a Current interview this month, PBS President Bruce Christensen backed the plan without reservation and predicted that 85 or 90 percent of stations eventually will participate if solid funding can be secured.

Carolynn Reid-Wallace, CPB's new senior v.p. for education, also endorses the plan but said in an interview that she'll be listening Saturday for station executives' views on Ready to Learn. "I want their best thinking. I want their toughest questions. I want their most promising solutions to this extraordinarily good idea," she said.

The proposal is "perfect to illustrate the kind of priorities I hope we will take on," she said. "If we do this right, we're going to find that we will not be losing another generation of youngsters to illiteracy."

Reid-Wallace, who joined CPB two months ago, was formerly assistant secretary for postsecondary education in the U.S. Department of Education and, before that, vice chancellor for academic affairs at the City University of New York.

Maryland shifts ITV out of the way

Stations already air an average of six hours of children's programming a day, including five for preschoolers, according to PBS's estimate. Some air as much as nine hours. And in a survey evaluating goals for PBS's National Program Service, general managers gave their highest rank to the objective of being "the leader in children's television."

Even some of those stations that are now committed to use daytime hours for instructional programs are willing to find different ways to deliver the classroom programs, as Maryland PTV demonstrated recently.

The state-operated network, which has been carrying about four hours of ITV on weekdays, announced May 26 that it will now air the classroom material overnight, when teachers can catch it with their VCRs. That will let the network double its children's programming to 40 hours a week.

In line with the objectives of a high-profile national service, Maryland PTV President Raymond Ho promoted the schedule change as "The Children's Channel," removed all ordinary adult-oriented promos and station breaks from the kidvid block and stitched it together with a slapstick, blue-jacketed adult host, an actor named Bob Heck. Promos invite kids to join the "MPT Vid Kid Club."

Not every programmer is as enthusiastic about Ready to Learn. Jim Lewis, v.p. and director of programming at KPTS, Wichita, distrusts PBS's agenda generally and is not convinced there is a demonstrated need to expand preschooler service or that it should be a priority for public TV. KPTS already carries eight hours of children's programs every weekday.

"It's just a political deal," Lewis says. "We're not in business to milk the taxpayer of their money."

Some other programmers are more supportive of the plan. Patti Boll, programming director at KETC, St. Louis, says Ready to Learn is "a daunting undertaking but certainly a worthy one" that has her station's full support. KETC already carries 9.5 hours of children's shows every weekday, including 7.5 for preschoolers.

Elwin Basquin, president of WTVP, Peoria, is open to discussion about the project, but has college telecourses as well as about five hours of kidvid on the weekday schedule. He wants to see some of the funding go directly to stations for implementation of the community services.

At WHRO-TV, Norfolk, Station Manager Mary Pruess also has commitments for four or five hours of ITV plus an hour of college telecourse material on weekdays, but the station is considering alternative means of delivering those services, such as ITFS microwave or overnight broadcasts.

In proposing the Ready to Learn plan, CPB and PBS have suggested that nonbroadcast channels would be better for distributing classroom programs, because they are used at fewer sites than preschool shows, which are usually viewed in the children's home or caregivers' homes. Only a quarter of preschools spend time in formal daycare centers, and that's only for part of the day, CPB's study found.

"My guess," Christensen said recently, "is that we'd be better off using the broadcast to achieve universal reach for children's programming and finding alternative ways to deliver programs to schools."

The $72 million Ready to Learn proposal includes not only $25 million for programming but also $35 million for family services (largely to hire one or one-and-a-half outreach staffers per station), $6 million or more for promotion and $2.5 million for research.

Weiss says PBS has asked producers to made prototypes of between-program material designed to involve kids and suggest to them activities and questions related to the day's programs.



To Current's home page

Current Briefing: Kidvid that's good for kids?

Earlier news: CPB proposes public TV commitment to ready-to-learn service: full day of educational programs for kids.

Later news: By fall 1996, the PBS Ready to Learn Service is expanding to 95 stations, though without funding at the level initially sought.


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