PBS Programming 'Czar's' First Moves Threaten Future of 3 Children's Shows
Changes this year at the Public Broadcasting Service that centralized programming authority in the hands of a single executive sparked much speculation in the public-television field about the possible impact on children's and educational programming.
The first clues emerged late last month, as Jennifer Lawson, the network's executive vice president for national programming and promotion services, made key decisions that threaten the future of several established public-television series popular among children and educators.
But PBS officials insist that their commitment to high-quality children's and educational programming is stronger than ever, as the service prepares to experiment with such uncharacteristic approaches as a children's game show on geography.
"A great change is taking place, in that public TV has decided to reassert its dominance in children's television," said Jeffrey W. Gabel, director of children's programming for the service. "I think we have been somewhat resting on our laurels."
Ms. Lawson, who has been dubbed PBS's first programming "czar," decided last month not to renew funding for "Newton's Apple," a science-magazine series aimed at families and children; "Long Ago and Far Away," an animated children's-story series; and "Wonderworks," a movie series for young people and their families.
Because of the complexity of the funding and programming process for public television, the decision by PBS not to fund the series does not automatically mean they will disappear from the airwaves next year, or even in the years to follow. For many series on public television, the money from the public-TV stations that make up PBS is but a small proportion of the patchwork of funding raised to get and stay on the air.
"Of course, we were disappointed that our series did not fit with her priorities," Sandy Cohen, producer of "Long Ago and Far Away," said of Ms. Lawson's decision to cancel funding for the show.
Ms. Cohen is still hopeful that a third season of the series will make it to public television. The show, produced by public-TV station WGBH in Boston, has already received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
But to secure enough money to produce the 13 new episodes she would like, Ms. Cohen must join other rejected shows in a final funding appeal to public-television stations. "It will be very competitive," she said.
To understand the arcane system of funding and developing shows for public television, it is important to realize the magnitude of the change earlier this year that gave Ms. Lawson centralized programming authority.
Previously, public-television stations pooled their resources and voted on which programs they would help fund. PBS does not produce programming, but acquires it from producers and presenting stations and distributes it to the public-TV system.
Now, Ms. Lawson will be in charge of the projected $78 million to be raised next year from local stations, as well as some of the federal contribution that comes through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
She has promised to enliven the program offerings, which face increased competition from cable channels that tread on areas of cultural and educational programming once dominated overwhelmingly by PBS.
Speaking last week in Washington at a forum on children's television, Ms. Lawson said public television must become more "innovative" with its educational programming.
The first sign of that innovation will appear next fall with the debut of "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?"--a weekday geography game show based on a popular children's computer program. Contestants ages 8 to 12 will try to track down the title character, an international thief, by answering cultural-geography questions.
Said Mr. Gabel of PBS: "The intent is to try to capitalize a on a very successful format that [the] Nickelodeon [cable channel] has been using, which is very popular with this age group. But this show will have real educational components."
PBS has also teamed up with the Discovery Channel to explore a new cable channel that would emphasize educational programs. The effort is in the early stages, officials said.
Despite major changes to the programming process, many staples of children's programming will still have PBS funding including "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," "Sesame Street," and "Reading Rainbow."
"Wonderworks" will continue into 1991-92, PBS officials said, because of funding commitments made under the previous system. However, its future after that is in doubt.
"We have to look at a new way of reaching kids through drama," said Mr. Gabel.
"Newton's Apple," the science series produced by public-TV station KTCA in St. Paul, was dealt a serious blow when Du Pont dropped its corporate sponsorship earlier this year after eight years of backing the show.
The station has approached more than 200 businesses for aid, but so far has come up empty handed, said Richard C. Hudson, the producer.
"Our show makes science appealing, and without it, there would be a void" in science programming for young people on public television, he argued.
Mr. Hudson is critical of the changes in the program-funding process, maintaining that they are not responsive "to the science education crisis we have in the United States."
Funding only prime-time science series such as "Nova" and "Nature," he said, "is not the answer to what is a very serious crisis."