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The Learning Channel is gearing up for the Dec. 28 debut of its new preschool educational- programming block, "Ready, Set, Learn!''

On that day, beginning at 6 A.M., the cable channel clears away six commercial-free hours for six half-hour educational shows, each of which will air twice during the block.

Some of the programming has appeared elsewhere, including "Zoobilee Zoo,'' a creative-arts series with the actor Ben Vereen that previously aired on the Public Broadcasting Service.

Other shows come from Canada or overseas, such as "Bookmice,'' a reading show about three mice who live behind the walls of a library.

But the cornerstone of the daily schedule is a new show, "The Magic Box,'' produced by the Australian educator Wendy Pye. The show uses stories and songs to teach reading to young children, using both phonics and whole-language approaches.

"The Magic Box'' airs from 8 A.M. to 8:30 A.M. Eastern time, and is repeated at 11 A.M.

"Bookmice'' airs at 6 A.M. and 9 A.M., while "Zoobilee Zoo'' is on at 7 A.M. and 10 A.M.

Other shows rounding out the block are:

  • "Join In,'' a Canadian show centering on three adults who share a workspace and fun with songs and games. It airs at 6:30 A.M. and 9:30 A.M.
  • "Iris, the Happy Professor,'' about a puppet instructor who sings and dances his way through classroom lectures. It airs at 7:30 A.M. and 10:30 A.M.

"Kitty Cats'' features two cats, a bird, and a dog who sing and dance as they deal with daily dilemmas. This show airs at 8:30 A.M. and at 11:30 A.M.

Viewers may wonder if the "Kitty Cats'' meet up with the "Bookmice.''

John Ford, the senior vice president for programming at the Learning Channel, said in an interview that the network has high hopes for the daily educational block.

"We see this as a cornerstone of our service,'' he said.

The Learning Channel was purchased last year and relaunched by Discovery Communications Inc. of Bethesda, Md., which also owns the Discovery Channel.

The Discovery Channel has close to 60 million cable subscribers for its lineup of documentaries and nature programming. The Learning Channel has just 18 million subscribers, and company officials acknowledge it is losing money.

Both channels have become well known to educators in recent years. Discovery offers the daily "Assignment: Discovery'' block of high school-classroom programming, while the Learning Channel offers a similar block for elementary school teachers to use in class. It also airs "Teacher TV,'' a magazine show focused on the profession that is co-produced with the National Education Association.

Learning Channel officials would like to persuade more cable operators to add the channel to their systems, and that is where the strategy of offering six commercial-free hours of educational programming starts to make business sense.

"What we really want to do is create a cornerstone service that cable operators can offer to their communities without controversy,'' Mr. Ford said. "Our payoff is that we are betting that cable operators will want [to add] our service, so we will see financial returns elsewhere on our schedule.''

The channel is expected to forfeit as much as $2 million in advertising revenue in the first year from the commercial-free block, but officials hope that amount can be more than made up by new subcribers. The channel would then benefit from the additional cable fees it received, as well as the potential for higher advertising revenues from the rest of its schedule.

The Discovery and Learning channels have just published their winter-spring educators' guide, a 14-page booklet that describes in detail what will be on "Assignment: Discovery,'' "T.L.C. Elementary School,'' and "Teacher TV.''

Free single copies of the guide can be obtained by calling (800) 321-1832.

Many PBS stations were scheduled to air a new special this week from the Children's Television Workshop entitled "Brainstorm: The Truth About Your Brain on Drugs.''

The one-hour special is an "extra'' episode of the PBS science show "3-2-1 Contact.'' The show explains the workings of the human brain and demonstrates the impact of illegal drugs such as crack cocaine and L.S.D., and legal ones such as nicotine and alcohol.

The program, with two teenage hosts, Stephanie Yu and Z Wright, uses interviews, quizzes, animation, and music to convey complex scientific information about the brain to the target audience of 8- to 12-year-olds.

The special was on the national PBS schedule for Dec. 14 at 8 P.M. Eastern time, but viewers should check local listings.

Rafe Esquith, a teacher at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles, was named the "outstanding teacher of 1992'' during the Disney Channel's third annual "American Teacher Awards,'' which aired live during a free preview of the pay-cable channel on Dec. 6.

The Oscars-style show honored winners in each of 12 subject categories before announcing the final winner.

The award show will be repeated on the Disney Channel throughout the coming year.--M.W.

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