CBS To Replace Its Entire Slate Of Children's Educational Shows

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CBS has learned the hard way that television that is good for children is not necessarily popular with children. Citing low ratings, the television network decided this month to scrap its entire lineup of children's educational programming next fall.

The network airs the six half-hour shows, including the science program "Beakman's World," to meet a Federal Communications Commission rule on educational programming for children that took effect in September.

All television broadcasters must air three hours of educational programming at a regular time each week if they want guaranteed renewal of their broadcast licenses. A station that fails to meet that requirement must appeal to the FCC to retain its license.

The rule, which the broadcast industry and child-advocacy groups agreed to at a White House summit in July 1996, was meant to put teeth into the Children's Television Act of 1990, which requires broadcasters to air programming "specifically designed to serve the educational and informational needs of children."

But the overhaul at CBS has focused attention on the conflict between educational goals and the financial bottom line of the television industry.

Network Disappointed

Marvin Frank, a CBS executive in charge of lobbying efforts, said the network invested heavily in acquiring and promoting the programs and is disappointed that they haven't succeeded. "We remain committed to serving this audience, and we obviously would like to put on more shows that are watched by more kids."

In addition to "Beakman's World," the shows to be canceled are "The Ghostwriter Mysteries," "Fudge," "Wheel of Fortune 2000," "The Sports Illustrated for Kids Show," and "The Weird Al Show."

Most children don't think of CBS "as a fun place to watch," Mr. Frank said. "CBS has a problem: We are, compared to other networks, an older-skewing network" in viewer demographics.

New Lineup

But Ellen Wartella, the dean of the communications program at the University of Texas at Austin, said CBS' woes might have a lot to do with insufficient promotion of the Saturday-morning shows and the network's decision to insert "CBS News Saturday Morning" in the middle of the lineup.

"What I hate is seeing this labeled as the problem of educational television," she said.

Other networks--including Fox Television and ABC--have been more successful than CBS in winning sizable audiences for their educational shows.

Donna Mitroff, the vice president of educational policies and program practices at Fox, said the network has benefited from having eight years' experience with educational programs. It also broadcasts 19 hours of children's programming weekly--far more than CBS and other networks that air children's programs only on Saturday morning--including weekday shows that allow it to promote its entire children's lineup more effectively.

CBS announced that it would replace its Saturday-morning lineup next fall with six programs produced by Nelvana Communications Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of a Canadian production company.

One of the programs, "Franklin," is about a turtle who "spends his days learning from his mistakes and from the world that surrounds him," according to a CBS press release. "The Dumb Bunnies," which like "Franklin" is based on a book series, features a family of bunnies while introducing children to "the basics of logical reasoning and problem-solving skills."

The new programs are all animated; CBS' current lineup is all live action. "More than anything I think there is a feeling that live action doesn't compete as well as animation, so we're going to give animation a try," Mr. Frank said.

Unclear Impact

The FCC rule has had an impact on the industry, though the extent is not fully clear, observers say.

The rule defined loosely what is considered educational and informational--for political or First Amendment reasons, say various industry observers--and broadcast stations determine whether a program satisfies the definition. Some observers say the broad definition gives broadcasters little direction; critics say broadcasters can evade the spirit of the rule.

Ms. Wartella said the requirement so far has not led to a new era of high-quality educational programming, but has fostered some improvements. "We have more educational television, more diversity and variety of programs," she said.

CBS had originally opposed the FCC rule, and Mr. Frank said it might eventually have to be re-examined. "It's too early to give up on the three-hour rule," he said, "but if a couple of years from now we are still struggling to find an audience--not to make money, but to find an audience--it is a legitimate question to ask whether this is the best way to ask CBS to serve children."

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