Learning or Market Share? Networks See Value in Promoting Big Series as Lessons
As the episodes of network television's most expensive miniseries, "War and Remembrance," unfold this month, some teachers may find themselves in the uncomfortable position of endorsing one of their biggest competitors for students' time.
ABC-tv, the network that produced the 30-hour, $110-million series, has done its best to make the adaptation of Herman Wouk's novel of World War II an eminently suitable homework assignment.
In what it calls an "unprecedented" educational effort, the network has sent out a half-million viewers' guides for teachers and students, convinced other organizations to fashion curricular materials around the series, and gained the official endorsement of both national teachers' unions, carried in a credit line at the show's end.
"This is a genuine history lesson," said Jane Paley, director of community relations for ABC and a former high-school English teacher.
But others, noting the increasing tendency of commercial television to view a school tie-in as a possible means of boosting audience shares, voice reservations.
"To the extent a television show will stimulate someone to read about history, I think it could be valuable," said Neil Postman, a professor of communication arts and sciences at New York University. "But the problem is, television mostly stimulates people to watch more television."
Seen in its infancy as a possible boon to learning, television soon relegated that function to so-called "educational channels." But with the popularity of such programs as public television's "Sesame Street," the educational label grew less onerous.
Not until the 1970's, however, with the blockbuster miniseries "Roots," did the full potential for highlighting the educational value of prime-time entertainment become apparent.
ABC also produced "Roots," and officials there claimed last week that the promotional effort in the schools for that program was the first of its kind.
"That was probably the first one that really took hold," agreed Karen Jaffe, executive director of kidsnet, a clearinghouse for information on children's television and radio. "When 'Roots' came on the air, nobody knew what it was; it was a sleeper."
"The National Education Association promoted it heavily," she said. "Their publications were going to 1.7 million teachers. The networks said the nea endorsement was worth some ratings points."
'Hungry' To Use Television
Regen Dennis, public relations director for KOMO-tv in Seattle, an ABC affiliate, said that "War and Remembrance" also "hit the hot button for a lot of social-studies teachers."
Her station mailed out more than 6,000 copies of the network's viewers' guide, a 24-page glossy magazine that contained a synopsis of the drama, suggested discussion questions on topics such as the Holocaust, an essay by Mr. Wouk on the filming of his novel, and suggestions for further reading.
"We have a great set of teachers here who are hungry to use television," said Ms. Dennis.
Another "War and Remembrance" brochure distributed to schools includes suggested questions for students who want to do an oral-history interview with an older relative or neighbor. And a third, described as a "values discussion guide," addresses many of the moral issues raised by the war. It was distributed primarily to religious and community groups.
The show's endorsement by the nea and the American Federation of Teachers was not unusual. Both are frequently asked to lend a stamp of approval to television programming.
"We thought this program had tremendous historical value," said Lyle Hamilton, manager of broadcast services at the nea The union also promotes the series in its publication NEA Today this month, excerpting a portion of the values guide.
"We felt it really merited our attention," said Ruth Whitman of the aft, "because it was so true to the book."
Preliminary indications are that many teachers are telling their students to watch the program, said the network's Ms. Paley.
In St. Louis Park, Minn., Marjorie Bingham, a high-school history teacher, said she assigned the miniseries as an extra-credit project. "The study guide was pretty good, especially the oral-history section," she said.
One drawback, Ms. Bingham added, is the program's timing. At this point of the school year, she said, most American-history classes are still in the pre-Civil War period.
The first 18 hours of the series will air from Nov. 13 to Nov. 23; the final 12 are set to air in the spring.
No Study Guide To 'Dynasty'
ABC promotes a variety of programming in schools, according to Ms. Paley, from its afterschool specials to made-for-television movies to its major miniseries. She selects programs with the most social and educational value, she said.
"I'm extremely picky about what I choose to target," said the former Dalton School faculty member. "The teachers can't pre-screen the program, so they have to rely on our integrity. You won't ever see a study guide to 'Dynasty,' but when you have a 'War and Remembrance,' teachers are interested."
The other major commercial networks, CBS and NBC, also produce viewer guides and other school-related materials to promote programs.
CBS has had its "Read More About It" book project with the Library of Congress for the last 10 years. At the end of certain made-for-television films and other programs, the network shows a short feature listing books available for reading more about the topic.
The network also has a unique program in which scripts for television programs are provided to students about four times a year.
"The script looks like a newspaper, with pictures, the script, camera directions, and information on how to read a script," said Joanne Brokaw-Livesey, director of educational and community services for CBS. "Each child gets one of those. The teachers' guide is a 40-page tome that addresses every possible issue raised in the show."
One recent guide provided the script of "This is America, Charlie Brown," a series of specials featuring the Peanuts cartoon characters in dramatizations of the Mayflower landing, the signing of the Constitution, the Wright Brothers' flight, and other historical events.
"We distributed almost 1 million scripts," Ms. Brokaw-Livesey said.
Scripts for Remedial Reading
The idea for CBS's script project came more than 10 years ago from a Philadelphia remedial-reading classroom, Ms. Brokaw-Livesey said. Teachers there noticed that students were unmotivated to read but enjoyed discussing what they viewed on television.
The teachers taped old episodes of "I Love Lucy" and other programs, then transcribed them and gave them to the remedial students to read.
"They had a remarkable reaction," said Ms. Brokaw-Livesey, who, like Ms. Paley, is a former high-school teacher. "The barriers were knocked down."
Scripts have been prepared and released for episodes of "M
- ," movies such as "Oliver Twist," and miniseries such as "The Blue and the Gray."
At NBC, study guides have been produced not only for historical miniseries, but also for the network's production of William Faulkner's "The Long, Hot Summer" and a Mr. T cartoon show that emphasized child safety.
"With 'Long, Hot Summer,' we focused on Southern writers," said Rosalyn Weinman, NBC's director of community affairs. "The Mr. T cartoon had an episode about using code words when being picked up by anyone other than their parents. We had a fabulous response to the study guide."
'Not for Tune-in Value'
For the networks, promoting programs in the schools can build viewership, which results in higher ratings and more revenue from advertisers. But officials adamantly deny that their educational activities are motivated primarily by the ratings war.
"It's not done for tune-in," said Ms. Weinman of NBC. "All three networks are trying to show that television can be compatible--and not competitive--with the exercise of teaching."
But Ms. Paley of ABC said there is "clearly an awareness" of these young viewers as potential ratings points.
"Yes, we are targeting older schoolchildren," she said of the "War and Remembrance" promotion. "I'm not ashamed of it. I wouldn't have committed to an educational support program of this scope if the program wasn't worthy of it."
Ms. Jaffe, who left the nea five years ago to form kidsnet, said the networks' interest in getting program endorsements from the teachers' unions has wavered in recent years. "They felt it became a pain," she said.
Mr. Hamilton said that the nea has been reviewing television scripts and programs for endorsement for 20 years, and still gets requests from networks and from independent producers. He claimed that the rival aft had complained several years ago to the networks that it, too, should be approached for endorsements.
The nea, Mr. Hamilton said, looks at production values and the authenticity of a program before deciding whether to endorse it.
The aft's Ms. Whitman said that her union declines to endorse programs that, while they may be well done, are not "central to the main message of this organization."
In 1983, ABC did heavy promotion in the schools of "The Day After," its depiction of life after a nuclear attack. But the nea issued a parent advisory that the program might be too frightening for young children.
"War and Remembrance," while not entirely embraced by the critics, has faced little criticism on its educational content. The network did put advisories for "young and sensitive viewers" on two episodes dealing with Nazi concentration-camp atrocities.
But while the series has been praised for its historical accuracy, some educators question whether it--or any other television series--offers a sound way to teach history.
To Mr. Postman, who has been a critic of television's impact on children, "War and Remembrance" may be powerful, but it presents an entirely American perspective of World War II, and a fragmented one at that.
"I don't know how much a student who hasn't read widely in this area is getting from it," he said.
But Herman Wouk, who had a major hand in producing the televised version of his novel, makes a case for the importance of popularized depictions of history.
"It may grieve the judicious that the great public learns much of its history from works of entertainment," he writes in an essay in the student viewers' guide. "I myself have read many scholarly histories about the French Revolution; yet in my mind, and certainly in the general mind, that upheaval is forever what Charles Dickens portrayed in A Tale of Two Cities."
Ms. Bingham, the Minnesota history teacher, also expressed reservations about using "docudramas" to teach history.
"As a historian, you have to teach what really happened," she said. "But this generation of kids is very ahistorical. Outside of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, they don't have much in history that they can tie into on an emotional level, as other generations did with Vietnam and other wars."
Lynne Cheney, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, expressed faith that viewership of "War and Remembrance" would spark interest in reading among students.
"I think that is a natural outcome of series like these," she said. "One of my own daughters became interested in reading about Roman history by watching 'I, Claudius."'