A Weekly 2/3¢ Per Child Will Buy Better Children's TV

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Why can't the United States provide its number-one natural resource--its children--with the electronic educational sustenance that television is uniquely capable of providing? After school and home, television is one of this country's most important teachers. Why are we Americans so stingy in allocating a fair share of our invaluable daily broadcast time to help educate our younger generation?

Other countries do it. In Great Britain, Japan, and Sweden, for instance, high-quality children's television is an institution. The BBC airs 840 hours of at-home children's television each year--one-eighth of its total program schedule. And 630 of these hours are newly produced programs.

In the United States, on the other hand, the noncommercial broadcasting network, PBS, carries about 150 hours each year of new children's programs. Most of this programming is for preschoolers; an ungenerous 5 to 6 minutes of new programming per weekday (or 90 hours per year) is provided for 6- to 9-year-olds and 10- to 13-year-olds. And not one of the three commercial networks carries a regularly scheduled daily informational program for children. Their programming is generally geared to pure entertainment--and confined to Saturday mornings. This is especially regrettable because 90 percent of children's television viewing takes place on weekdays, according to the A.C. Nielsen Company, which conducts regular surveys of television viewership.

Although the Federal Communications Commission never actually required networks to produce weekday children's programming, the networks once voluntarily provided a small number of high-quality shows in order to forestall the imposition of federal requirements. But since 1980, the nonregulatory mood of the FCC has effectively ended the "threat" of federal regulation that kept the networks producing high-quality weekday programs.

In December 1983, the FCC ruled against a petition brought more than 10 years ago by the Boston-based Action for Children's Television, which asked for regulations requiring networks to regularly schedule high-quality children's programs on weekdays. Today, none of the networks carries a single regularly scheduled weekday children's program. As Joan Ganz Cooney, president of the Children's Television Workshop (CTW), has said, "The quality and amount of children's programming is a visible litmus test of our nation's attitudes toward the young."

Commercial broadcasting--which uses its programming as a vehicle for advertising--is a $19-billion business; public broadcasting revenues are a drastically smaller $845 million. Yet it is public broadcasting that has provided the highest quality of children's programming, and it is to public broadcasting that we must turn for an adequate children's schedule.

Because almost no funding was otherwise available to support children's public television, CTW, producers of Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and 3-2-1 Contact, had to invent a new genre of viewing fare. This genre, known today throughout the world as "the CTW model," is a hybrid of previous entertainment and educational programs, intended for the first time for both home and school use. With this model, the United States was the first country in the world to take systematic steps to link children's out-of-school television with urgent national education priorities.

In recent years, each time a major education crisis has arisen, television contributed toward its resolution. For example, in 1968, Sesame Street began production based on a concept from the then-new Head Start program, which provided preschool preparation for children of low-income families. Today, CTW's three children's series continue to make a small but useful contribution to address that educational need. Proposals for CTW series designed to help meet other acknowledged needs--in mathematics, health, history, geography, literature, and the arts--await funding.

Taking these important but modest beginnings as our model, this country could create a comprehensive children's home-and-school television schedule that would be the envy of the entire world--a permanent complement to parental and classroom instruction that would serve as a powerful, positive socializing influence. A very modest minimum for such a schedule would be an hour each weekday, year round, for each of three age groups: children ages 2 to 5, 6 to 9, and 10 to 13. That's 780 hours of programming a year--close to what children in Great Britain, Japan, and Sweden are offered.

The United States could build this modest, but much-expanded, program schedule over a period of several years for just about two-thirds of a cent each weekday (only $1.81 a year) for each of the 36 million 2- to 13-year-olds in the population. The total budget requirement is about $65 million a year, a tiny fraction of the $240 billion the nation will be spending on kindergarten-through-college education this year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

At a time when recommendations for correcting our country's educational crisis abound--and sometimes conflict--one part of the solution seems obvious: making fuller use of broadcast television for at-home learning. Television's unique capabilities for this educational task lie in its ubiquity; nonthreatening, nonpunitive teaching quality; ability to organize and present information in clear and memorable ways through animated graphics; ability to depict live role models; nondependence on reading skill or ability; and capacity to inspire and stimulate children to seek other sources of information.

The hour each weekday I propose for a minimal children's educational-television schedule is equal to 260 hours per year for each child--about a fifth of the total time primary-school children spend in the classroom. And it's also about a fifth of the time a typical child spends watching television, according to the Nielsen Company. This amount of time, taken over a 12-year period, represents a truly significant learning opportunity--or it can be a lost opportunity, depending on the actions we are prepared to take on children's behalf.

Finding the money will be no easy task. Funds from all sources for public-television programs for children amount to only $24 million today. That is $41 million short of the $65-million budget needed for a minimal children's schedule. A $65-million budget is far beyond the capacity of public television. In fact, the fundraising efforts of individual public-television stations ($31 million for national programming this year) combine with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's government-allocated program fund ($22 million) for a 1983-84 budget of $53 million for all programming, not just children's programming. Over the long term, these two sources are not ever likely to be able to provide more than 20 percent of the $65 million needed.

The Children's Television Workshop, a commercial producing organization, is the largest single source of funding for children's programs. Its yearly contribution of $7.5 million accounts for nearly a third of the amount currently spent.

Because private corporations, another potential source, support public television for public-relations purposes, they prefer exposure to adult audiences. Their contribution traditionally is unstable from year to year, and, for children's programs, averages well under $1 million annually. Philanthropies also prefer to fund adult programs. In the past, those few with both the interest in education and the large resources required to support television have provided important support for the initial development of innovative new series. Foundations, however, do not, as a rule, contribute continuing financial support.

Barring the unlikely appearance of some benevolent deity who will simply drop the money into our laps, government funding is the only recourse. Through regulation, taxation, and direct appropriation of funds, government inevitably plays, and must continue to play, a major role in deciding the overall quality of children's television throughout the nation. It must take the initiative in framing television's response to the growing national concern about our children's educational needs.

Moreover, if we are to compensate for the disappearance of regularly scheduled children's informational programming from the networks' weekday schedules that has resulted from the current deregulatory climate, we must press the Congress to act. In its last session, the Congress considered legislation aimed at increasing the amount of children's television each commercial station must broadcast and offering tax incentives to spark activity in the field. These steps are important as far as they go, but they will do nothing to bring about the kind of well-planned educational television programs we so urgently need. The only sure way to make this vision a reality is through direct federal appropriations.

Edward R. Murrow said of television: "This instrument can teach; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to these ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box."

When we consider the power of television to either stupefy or inspire, when we consider the commitment other countries have made to ensure high-quality television for their children, when we consider the great cost-effectiveness of educational television in light of our current educational crisis, we should not be asking whether we as a nation can afford to provide a decent children's television schedule. We must ask, instead, whether we can afford not to.

Vol. 04, Issue 13, Page 15

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