Educational Programs 'Flourish' on PBS

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Though the creators of "Sesame Street" hoped it would inspire educational-program development at the commercial networks, such endeavors have remained almost exclusively the province of public television.

"People wonder, why didn't 'Sesame Street' encourage more preschool shows?" says Geraldine B. Laybourne, president of the cable channel Nickelodeon. "The economics just aren't there. Advertisers are not as interested in reaching 2- to 5-year-olds as they are in 6- to 10-year-olds."

A top children's programmer at the ABC network is equally frank in her assessment of why commercial television does not offer educational programming in the mold of "Sesame Street."

"It wouldn't be economically sound for us," Jenny Trias, vice president for children's programming at ABC, concedes. "I would love to think there would be more such programs, but it boils down to the fact that this company is in the business of making money. Children's programs don't have that wide an advertising interest."

Ellen A. Wartella, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois, notes that "shows like 'Sesame Street' require considerable upfront expense in research, and then continuing research, as well."

"That reduces the profit margin," she says.

Neglect from commercial broadcasters has not, however, diminished the search for creative new educational programming on public television. According to many, the spectrum of offerings available now is richer than ever before. It includes:

"3-2-1 Contact," a daily series designed to stimulate interest in science among 8- to 12-year-olds. It is pro4duced by Children's Television Workshop, the nonprofit organization that also produces "Sesame Street."

"Square One TV." Also a product of ctw, it promotes mathematics among students in the 8- to 12-year-old age group. The show is built around such features as "Mathnet," a math detective series modeled on "Dragnet."

"Reading Rainbow." Hosted by the actor Levar Burton, this series encourages 5- to 8-year-olds to read more by featuring a different book in each episode, plus book reviews by children. Librarians report heavy demand for books featured on the show.

"Degrassi Jr. High." The first public-TV series to focus on the problems of young teenagers, it has won critical acclaim for its treatment of such topics as anorexia, alcohol abuse, and prejudice. It will become "Degrassi High" when its new season begins early next year.

"Long Ago and Far Away." A weekly drama series featuring animations of classic children's books and fairy tales.

Other children's programs on public television noted for their educational value include "Wonderworks," "Shining Time Station," and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

"Children's programming on public broadcasting is flourishing as it has in no other time period," claims Donald L. Marbury, associate director of cultural and children's programming for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the quasi-governmental agency that provides funding for public television.

Most of these programs are offered to all public stations by the Public Broadcasting Service. But because PBS does not operate like the commercial networks, which encourage their affiliates to follow a set program schedule, the shows carried and their time slots may vary widely across the country.

Even within public-TV, however, funding for new educational-program ventures is a continuing challenge, according to Edward L. Palmer, former research chief at ctw and author of Television and America's Children: A Crisis of Neglect.

Many programs can find sufficient funding for an initial season or two, he says, but then see funds dry up as foundations turn to something new.

The funding for "Reading Rainbow" is a classic example of the patchwork of sources that must be strung together for most such programs to survive. It receives money from 10 different sources, including the cpb, individual public-television stations, the National Science Foundation, Du Pont, and ibm

No other program on public television has generated the kind of marketable presence that "Sesame Street" has, with its licensing success for products and toys associated with the popular Muppet characters.

The royalties from these products not only pay the bills for most new episodes of "Sesame Street," but also provide ctw with the funds to develop new programs like "Square One TV" and its planned literacy series targeted at 6- to 9-year-olds.

Despite the cash-flow problems, interest in adding to the educational output appears to be growing. Mr. Marbury reports that in the cpb's last round of funding, he received 30 serious proposals for money for new children's ventures. Five years ago, he says, there were only about five.

He has been encouraging producers, Mr. Marbury says, to develop proposals for programs dealing with three subjects he believes merit more attention: geography, ethics, and race. The cpb has already awarded research funds for development of a geography game show for 9- to 13-year-olds.

But Mr. Palmer argues in his 1988 book that both the commercial-television system in America and its public counterpart vastly underserve children. This is especially apparent, he says, when compared with what other countries are doing.

In Britain, for instance, the British Broadcasting Corporation aired in one recent year 590 hours of new programming for children. During the same year, PBS had only 87.5 hours.

"Not many parents know that not one commercial network carries regular weekday programming for children," Mr. Palmer says. "If we give kids just an hour each weekday of educational programming geared to their age, and do it over ages 2 to 13, it is an amount of learning time equal to two years spent in school."

A bill in the Congress would provide more funding for children's educational programming and establish a permanent entity that could be a force in program improvement.

The "national endowment for children's educational television act" was passed by the Senate on Aug. 4; it has yet to be considered by the House. The bill would provide $10 million in fiscal 1990 for grants to producers of children's programming. The shows would have to appear on public television for the first two years, but then could be provided to commercial broadcasters, as long as they were not interrupted by commercials.

The measure also calls for an advisory council on children's television made up of experts on education, child development, psychology, and television programming.

"This legislation is an important component of our efforts to enhance our children's education," said Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, who sponsored the measure.

Supporters note that, although the dollar amount of the endowment's first outlay is modest, it would equal what is spent now by the cpb on children's programming.

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