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TV News Programs For Young Viewers Making a Comeback

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Television news and informational programming for young viewers, virtually absent from the major broadcast networks for the past decade, is making a comeback this year, especially on cable channels and local stations.

Underlying the trend is a combination of forces, including the spur of competition, requirements in a new federal law, and a heightened interest in children's news sparked by the Persian Gulf war.

One indicator of the trend comes from an unlikely source: MTV, or Music Television, the 10-year-old cable channel that many parents and educators view as the very symbol of American youths' preference for television over homework.

This month marked the debut of MTV's first news-magazine show for teenagers and young adults, entitled "Like We Care." The channel has also jumped into coverage of Presidential politics with its own distinctive reports from the campaign trail.

Regular news and information programs for young viewers are also scheduled to debut on the Nickelodeon and Turner Broadcasting System cable channels in the coming months.

ABC News, meanwhile, has given serious consideration to a weekly news show for young people, but has yet to commit to the idea.

These developments come some 10 years after the CBS network dropped such widely praised Saturday features for young viewers as "In the News," a series of short current-events segments, and the magazine show "30 Minutes."

Since that time, champions of improved children's television have pressed broadcasters to put news shows tailored for youngsters back on their schedules.

"This is something children's-TV advocates have been seeking for years," said Ellen Wartella, a research professor of communications at the University of Illinois and a follower of trends in children's television. "I hope these [new programs] are not just flashes in the pan."

Convergence of Factors

Several factors appear to have combined to stimulate the surge in news programming for youths.

First, there was the appearance of news and current-events shows designed for the classroom, starting with the 1990 launch of Whittle Communications' controversial "Channel One."

The Cable News Network soon followed with a commercial-free alternative, "CNN Newsroom," and other cable networks rushed to package their own programming for easy taping and use by classroom teachers.

Then, the outbreak of the Persian Gulf war last year prompted several news specials, including ones on ABC and Nickelodeon, designed to explain the conflict to young people and to help allay their fears. ('See Education Week, Jan. 30, 1991 .)

ABC and Nickelodeon have both followed up with occasional specials on other current issues.

Meanwhile, the trend received a big boost from Washington in the form of the Children's Television Act of 1990. The federal law, which became effective last year, for the first time requires television stations to air programs "specifically designed" to serve the "educational and informational needs of children" as a condition of license renewal. The law appears to be prodding local broadcasters to add children's news and information shows to their schedules, advocates say.

"Broadcasters are nervous about the act," said Kathryn C. Montgomery, the co-director of the Campaign for Kids' TV, a watchdog group.

"Our concern," she added, "is that we will see this initial flurry of activity and then it will go away."

Over the past year, ABC has been the leader among the traditional broadcast networks in developing news programming for children.

After the success of its special on the Gulf war, network officials began developing a weekly news program for children with the proposed title of "The ABC News, Machine."

But the show never made it onto last fall's schedule. Instead, ABC executives decided to air several specials dealing with issues of interest to young people.

A regular weekly news show for young viewers is "still in discussion," Patrick Roddy, ABC's executive producer for morning news programs, said last week. "We are trying to take sure steps and get the programming that we think is topical, interesting, and high-impact."

"ABC's approach," he said, "has been to devote significant resources and high-caliber people" to projects such as a Feb. 2 special on "Growing Up in the Age of Aids."

The next special, about prejudice, will air in April. Mr. Roddy, who is also the executive producer of the specials, would like to do future specials on the "behind the scenes" aspects of politics and on the money system.

It is harder to say whether the other two major broadcast networks are likely to add a news show for children.

NBC has already announced that next fall it will scrap its schedule of Saturday-morning cartoons because of low ratings. In their place will be another edition of the "Today" show, which may or may not have some segments for younger viewers, the network has said.

NBC has also hinted it will add a program on late Saturday morning designed to meet the educational programming provisions of the Children's Television Act. That could be a news show or a more general information or science show. NBC executives would not elaborate on their plans.

CBS, the home to several of the most respected children's news shows of the past, has not said whether it will add such a show in the near future.

Law's Mandate Seen as Vague

The Children's Television Act will have its primary impact on local television stations, which are the actual broadcast licensees subject to its provisions.

But the law's educational'programming requirement is viewed throughout the broadcasting industry as vague.

The Federal Communications Commission did not please children's-TV advocates last year when it adopted rules to implement the act that did not specify how much educational and informational programming was enough to satisfy the requirement. ('See Education Week, April 17, 1991.)

Most broadcast lawyers are advising stations to add at least one weekly half-hour educational or informational program to their schedules, said Valerie Schulte, a lawyer with the National Association of Broadcasters.

Most stations are relying on a handful of syndicated shows--those developed by a production company and sold individually in each local TV market.

Among the syndicated weekly news and information shows that have sprouted within the last year are "Not Just News," produced by the Fox Television Stations; "KTV," produced by NBC and its cable sister, CNBC; "Wide World of Kids," from Goodman Entertainment; and "Way Cool," from Group W Productions. "Not Just News," which appears on 100 stations nationwide, is one of the few such shows to include some hard news tailored for children. The news segment is often hidden among soft features and studio antics.

"We would not have been able to produce this before the [Children's Television] Act," said Tem Herwitz, the general manager of WTTG-TV, the Fox station in Washington where "Not Just News" is produced. "The act gave it a marketing opportunity."

Growth on Cable Channels

Many of the new information shows are being developed by cable channels, even though the cable industry is not subject to the educational-programming provisions of the 1990 law.

"Like We Care," MTV's magazine program, airs for a half hour every weekday at 5 P.M. Eastern and Pacific times.

The show is heavily oriented toward, but is not limited to, entertainment and other light features. The debut program included, for example, a segment on weapons searches at an Indianapolis high school as well as an interview with one of the stars of the popular television series "Beverly Hills 90210."

"I think this show destroys the notion of MTV being completely mindless," said Doug Herzog, the senior vice president of programming for the music-video channel.

Both "Like We Care" and MTV's election coverage feature the network's trademark quick editing and frenetic pace.

MTV will probably not cover politics beyond the Presidential campaign, Mr. Herzog said.

"We're trying to inform them and make them aware so they vote more," he said of the 18- to 24-year old MTV viewers targeted by the campaign coverage. "Music video is our business, and this is a sidebar. We are not going to be CNN."

The Cable News Network, meanwhile, will be the backbone of "News for Kids," a weekly program that will appear on the Turner Broadcasting System cable "superstation.'' It will also be syndicated to local TV stations.

The program, slated to begin next fall, will be "hard news" in its orientation but will also try to be more entertaining than the classroom-oriented "CNN Newsroom," according to Vivian Schiller, the vice president for development at TBS Productions.

"We did a lot of research and focus groups, and we found kids really want to know the news," Ms. Schiller said. "I think the kids are a lot smarter than we think, and they know when they are being condescended to" by children's shows.

The only competition the TBS show will face in the form of a regular cable news show for children will be Nickelodeon's entry, which does not yet have a title.

Beginning in April, Nickelodeon will feature a news show produced and anchored by Linda Ellerbee, the former NBC and ABC correspendent.

The half-hour show will appear twice a month at first, increasing to once a week by the fall.

"We will try to take the major news story of the day and tell it in a way that kids understand," Ms. Ellerbee said in an interview.

Echoing Ms. Schiller of TBS, Ms. Ellerbee added: "One thing that is burnt into our foreheads, however, is that "Thou shalt not talk down to these kids~."

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