September 11, 1997

Networks Comply, but Barely, on Children's Shows

By LAWRIE MIFFLIN

A nourishing new world of children's television was supposed to begin this week, with the nation's broadcast stations required by Federal regulations to carry three hours a week of educational shows for viewers under 16.

But that world, it turns out, is often thin on nourishment--and not even very new.

A look at the fall schedule, which begins on Saturday, raises serious questions about how sincerely the broadcast networks have accepted the challenge of producing creative, engaging shows that include truly educational elements.

The first batch of new shows intended to comply with the rule is a mixed bag of reruns from PBS or cable, a few innovative shows that appear to have the new mandate at heart, and some entertainment shows with an overlay of educational material slapped on like shellac.

CBS, for example, offers "The Weird Al Show," starring the pop-song parodist Weird Al Yankovic, who says that educational messages never entered his mind when he first set out to produce a children's show based on his routine. ABC has retooled "101 Dalmatians" to include sentimental lessons about friendship and responsibility. Fox has no new shows at all, and the most-watched network, NBC, continues to say that "N.B.A. Inside Stuff" is designed to teach "life lessons," not just promote basketball.

Peggy Charren, the fairy godmother to the new Federal rule, is not buying that. "I doubt any parent or educator will look at that and say: 'What a breathtakingly good schedule for the No. 1 network. They're really taking their obligation to children seriously this time!' " said Ms. Charren, whose now-disbanded advocacy group, Action for Children's Television, led the lobbying that resulted in passage of the Children's Television Act in 1990.

Stations' response -- calling "The Jetsons" or "Leave It to Beaver" educational or scheduling educational shows at 6 A.M. -- provoked the new, stricter Federal Communications Commission rules, passed in 1996 to take effect this year.

John Miller, the executive in charge of NBC's teen-age programming, said the network has intensified the collaborations with educational consultants that it requires of its producers, in an effort to come closer to the spirit of the rule. Those consultants, he said, do not merely review scripts, as in the past, but are involved at the conception of each episode.

"We took the criticism to heart and have aggressively tried to add more educational content into the shows," he said, referring to "N.B.A. Inside Stuff" and the teen-age sitcoms that NBC also labels educational: the new "City Guys," about buddies in an urban school, "Hang Time," about a girl on a boys' basketball team, and "Saved By The Bell: The New Class."

Only a tiny fraction of television shows specifically address teen-agers, and Mr. Miller said that while the other networks aim at younger children, NBC has tried to confront issues that vex adolescents.

Such issues -- peer pressure, self-esteem, troubles with parents or siblings or in school -- have become a grab bag for the vast majority of shows that are labeled educational, whether provided by the networks to their affiliates or packaged by syndicators for sale to individual stations. Very few dare to tackle curricular topics like literature, history, science, math or geography. And except for several one-minute segments on CBS, there is no news or current-events show for children.

"My concern is that they'll use these little formulas and will not really try to improve anything or try new things," said Kathryn C. Montgomery, president of the Center for Media Education, a research and advocacy group. "I'm worried that they'll do the bare minimum and hope the public complaints will eventually go away."

Complaints arose because so many children's shows were cartoons that were violent, were blatantly created to sell toys and other merchandise, or both. In response, the 1990 law was passed requiring educational programs on broadcast stations. (The law applies only to broadcasters, not to cable, because Federal licenses to use the public airwaves are granted free, on condition that stations meet public service obligations.)

But broadcasters complain that it is difficult to make educational shows that children want to watch. And children today have plenty of temptation to change channels, notably to two cable rivals, Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network.

"There's no sense putting on programs to educate and inform kids if kids won't watch them," said Margaret Loesch, vice chairman of Fox Kids Worldwide, a joint venture of Fox Broadcasting and Saban Entertainment that offers "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers," and "Goosebumps." Trying to Do The Minimum

Still, companies with proven track records in producing entertainment for children -- Fox, Disney, Warner Brothers -- might have been expected to be the most imaginative in weaving educational content into television shows. By and large, they have instead met the bare minimum requirements of the new rule.

Fox, the Nielsen ratings leader on Saturday morning among children aged 2 to 11, is meeting most of its educational quota with reruns of a seven-year-old cartoon called "Bobby's World," broadcasting them in most cities at 7 on weekday mornings (2 P.M. in New York City) and 8 A.M. on Saturdays. Only one other educational show invades the gang of superheroes on Fox's lucrative Saturday lineup, the Emmy Award-winning cartoon about a boy and his family, "Life with Louie."

And the WB network, which is providing 19 hours of children's shows to its stations this season, for weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings, is meeting the F.C.C. requirement with one new animated half-hour called "Channel Umptee-3" and the umpteenth reruns of "The New Adventures of Captain Planet," a show that first appeared on Turner Broadcasting's TBS cable network in 1990.

While ABC has made an ambitious effort -- coming up with five new Saturday shows, all designated E/I (the label used for educational or informational programs) -- the network, owned by Disney, has also played it safe, for the most part simply layering educational messages onto tried-and-true properties like "101 Dalmatians" and "Winnie the Pooh."

An exception is "Science Court," a cartoon show in which scientific concepts are used to explain amusing cases that come before a judge whose voice is provided by the comedian Paula Poundstone. Ms. Montgomery said the show "breaks new ground in the way it combines humor with educational content." Yet ABC has scheduled it at 12:30 P.M., a time when it will often be pre-empted for sports events.

NBC's shows for teen-agers may also be pre-empted frequently for sports, because the network will not move the very successful Saturday edition of "Today." Some NBC stations, including WNBC in New York, have a local edition of "Today" following the national one, so in many places the "Teen NBC" lineup will not start until 10:30 A.M. and will end as late as 1:30 P.M.

And CBS, trying to mimic the "Today" ratings success with "CBS News Saturday Morning," will interrupt its children's block for two hours. The news show, with former Representative Susan Molinari as co-host, will be on from 9 to 11 A.M. in most places.

But in its three hours of educational programs, CBS has dared to try a few new things. These include "The Sports Illustrated for Kids Show," developed from the magazine of the same name, which has been praised by educators, and the unlikely sounding "Wheel of Fortune 2000," based on the adult game show. The "Wheel" show has a computer-animated co-host named Cyber Lucy and a Web site that allows viewers to enter the game. Real children spin the wheel and try to spell out not just words but answers to questions.

CBS also has revived one of the most successful PBS shows of the last decade, "Ghostwriter," a live-action show about teen-age sleuths and a ghost who uses reading and spelling tricks to help them, under the title "The New Ghostwriter Mysteries." 'All Our Shows Are Educational'

And then there's Weird Al, whose parody of the grim rap video "Gangsta's Paradise," called "Living in an Amish Paradise," entranced MTV audiences last year.

Mr. Yankovic, at a summer news briefing, said the show was not initially meant to be educational: "And then CBS said, 'Well all of our shows are educational.' So I said: 'You know what? Now it's educational.' "

In a more recent interview, Mr. Yankovic said, "I joke about it, but we ended up taking the educational elements very seriously. Some might even call it overkill."

Indeed, the consultants have added club-you-over-the-head messages ("Today's lesson is: Don't follow people who can get you into trouble -- think for yourself!") that are intoned at the start of the show by a mock-serious announcer and woven awkwardly into an otherwise zany half-hour of physical comedy.

"The Weird Al Show" has the flavor of something children might embrace without (or despite) its rudimentary educational elements. That is a trick all the broadcasters are trying to learn, for they have a very real fear of losing most of the children's audience to cable.

Busy worrying about that competition, broadcasters largely ignored the Children's Television Act's mandate to meet children's educational needs. Now the advocacy groups that worked for the law are, for the most part, holding their fire on criticizing new shows. They hope to encourage the broadcasters to keep working at developing better ones.

"Some shows will be good, some bad, but I hope people don't throw up their hands and say, 'See? This made no difference, it was a waste of time,' " Ms. Charren said.

"The first year of an effort to clean up rivers doesn't make them free of all pollution. But if we said, 'See, I knew these laws were useless,' we would never clean up the rivers."


This article appeared in The New York Times on September 11, 1997.


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