New Braunfels Herald Zeitung (Newspaper) - May 29, 1997, New Braunfels, Texas
Herald - Z e i t u n gHerald-Zeitung g Thursday, May 29,1997 □ 7Attractions
Arts & Leisure:Networks Unlock Doors to Higher Quality
By Robert P. Laurence Copley News Service
In some ways, children's television is a lot like grown-up television. There’is a lot of it, and it ranges wildly in quality.
But there's one big difference: Children's TV is improving. It’s considerably better than it used to be, and it promises to get even better.
Kids’ TV, like adult TV, ranges from the sublime to the plain ugly, from the simple, enduring magic of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” to the brutality of “DarkStalkers,” from the inspired lunacy of “KaBlam!” to the brooding film-noir atmosphere of “Batman and Robin,” tp the charming, fragile whimsy of “Bananas in Pajamas.”
It can be wildly imaginative, utterly beyond anything on adult TV, and astonishingly hip.
Some of the zaniest programs are those least-known to adults. Tune to “Samurai Pizza Cats” on a weekday afternoon, and you might hear the cartoon characters singing, “Some enchanted evening, you’ll meet Farley Granger!” (which may leave the adult viewer wondering how many of today’s 10-year-olds recognize the song “Some Enchanted Evening,” or if any of them have heard of Farley Granger, a minor movie star of the 1940s and ‘50s).
On “KaBlam!,” a cartoon variety show, the animated hosts are named Henry and June, a not-so-subtle reference to “Henry & June,” an obscure but very adult 1990 movie. “Animaniacs,” from the studios of Steven Spielberg, is rife with inside-Hollywood gags about stars and movies of the distant past.
Keeping track of children’s programs can be maddeningly confusing, with the same shows, or similar shows with almost-the-same titles, running simultaneously on different channels; “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” is a PBS staple, while Fox recently ran a similar show from the same producers - “Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?” Shows that die on one channel are revived on another; in the fall, CBS will air “The Ghostwriter Mysteries,” based on an earlier PBS show, “Ghostwriter.”
Not that the mindless, violent cartoons that for so long seemed to dominate kids’ TV have vanished suddenly from the landscape. “G.I. Joe” is still there, along with “DarkStalkers” and “Power Rangers Zeo.”
But an increase in the number of stimulating programs is changing the balance. And there’s more to come.
The reasons are simple. First, competition, as it does in horse racing, has improved the breed. Cable’s Nickelodeon channel has raised the bar several notches, while new entrants in the field -such as Fox, Spielberg and even HBO - have nurtured and encouraged upcoming writers and artists.
“There have been new standards set over the last few years with more-sophisticated writing, more-sophisticated comedy,” said Lucy Johnson, CBS’ senior vice president for daytime and children’s programming. “It opened up the area. Nickelodeon had a great deal to do with it. Fox and Warner Bros, had a lot to do with it.”
Second, the Federal Communications Commission, prompted by the Clinton administration, has told broadcasteis that, beginning Sept. I, they must carry at least three hours of educational and informational children’s
programming every week. As a result, dozens of new shows described by producers as “FCC-friendly” are being advertised in the trade press, hoping to attract the attention of local stations and get on the air in the fall. The FCC’s enforcement mechanism is weak at
best, however, and optimism must be tempered by skepticism and a wait-and-see attitude.
“You’re going to see very little effect until somebody sues a station and some station loses its license,” cautions Linda Ellerbee, producer of Nickelodeon’s “Nick News.” “Then the networks will take it seriously. Right now, it’s a game of ‘Put on what you like and see if anybody complains.’”
CHILDREN’S CHOICES It may be the children themselves who do the most to improve children’s TV, just by the choices they make. Judging from visits to second-grade and fifth-and-sixth-grade classrooms at Jefferson Elementary School in San Diego, the kids themselves seem to favor programs that offer them some benefit. They can be discriminating, knowledgeable viewers with strong, informed opinions.
Ask what they think of Fox’s “X-Men” - a violent cartoon that has long been the bane of those who yearn for better children’s TV - and most of the kids sit silently, with puzzled, “never-heard-of-it” expressions on their faces. A few respond with a disdainful “No-o-o” and sounds of disgust - “Ee-e-uw!” One boy remarks that “the drawings keep on getting worse, and the stories aren’t as good. And they’re mostly reruns.”
But mention “Wishbone,” a PBS program in which a Jack Russell terrier is costumed as the hero of various works of classical literature, such as “Ulysses," “Sherlock Holmes” or “Ivanhoe,” and hands fly up, and in unison the kids shout out an approving “Oooh!”
r‘T like ‘Wishbone’ because it shows you old books,” said one. One pupil read Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” after watching the “Wishbone” version and decided, “The book was better.” One even tackled Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” after she saw “Wishbone,” but concluded that “‘Wishbone’ made it funnier.”
Another viewer said “Wishbone” was “educational, but it’s still funny. It’s not like ‘Reading Rainbow’ (a PBS standby). That’s too educational. If you’re watching TV, you don’t want to go back to school.”
One more revelation: Most of the kids said they and their parents do pay attention to television’s new ratings system, and their parents don’t let them watch programs unsuited to their age group.
“If it says ‘TV-14,’ my mom will sit down to watch it with me,” said one lucky fifth-grader.
If they have a single favorite, it may be “Rugrats,” a children’s TV phenomenon. A nightly feature on Nickelodeon, “Rugrats” regularly occupies half or more of the top spots in Nielsen’s weekly cable ratings. (Every showing of every episode is rated individually, so the same program can appear on the list several times, and “Rugrats” does.)
The episode on Hanukkah explained the Jewish holiday with wit, verve and originality, and a
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recent episode dealt with nothing more consequential (to a grownup, at least) than a toddler’s fear of going down the drain with the bath
more people talk more about doing good children’s television. And perhaps that’s a beginning.”
Nickelodeon has made itself a
Shows like PBS’s “Sesame Street’ programming.
water. “It’s for bigger kids, too, because they used to be that age,” said one boy.
PBS, with such perennial favorites as “Sesame Street,” “Shining Time Station” and “The Magic Schoolbus,” and Nickelodeon are two of the chief purveyors of children’s programming.
NBC has puHed out of the 2-to-11-year-old market (as children’s TV is defined in the industry) to concentrate on teens, and CBS already has announced it will drop its animated programs in the fall in favor of educational shows designed to meet its stations’ federal requirements. But Disney-owned ABC remains a major player in the field.
Alice Cahn, director of children’s programming at PBS, believes that “there’s more good stuff. I think there’s just as much bad stuff, though. “Does that make the balance any better? I don’t know. It’s like saying there’s more good food on the table, but it’s still easy to have chocolate for breakfast. There are more places on the dial for kids to go, more stores for them to shop in.”
What’s positive, Cahn said, is that after last summer’s long public debate that led to the FCC’s three-hour directive, “You are seeing ' - .....
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lead the way in quality children’s
dominant player in the last few years through persistence, the sheer quantity of its children’s programming, and a few hits such as “Rugrats” and “Doug.”
“The criticism and the focus on kids’ television is only going to bring more quality stuff to the air, and that’s a good thing,” said Cyma Zarghami, Nickelodeon’s general manager and senior vice president of programming.
“The more it’s in the press and in the faces of parents, the more they’ll pay attention and make choices that are smart for their kids,” said Zarghami, who’s been with Nickelodeon for 13 of the channel’s 17 years. “I think there should be a quality mandate before there’s an educational mandate,” she added.
“Because kids can take just as much from good, quality
programming that reflects things that are relevant in their lives as they can from a show that teaches them how to count.”
DUBIOUS VALUE One doesn’t have to search far to find examples of programs of dubious value. The CBS fall children’s lineup includes not only the worthwhile science show “Beakman’s World,” but also “Wheel of Fortune 2000” and “The Sports Illustrated for Kids Show.” Both would seem to be half-hour infomercials, transparent promotions for an adult game show and a sports magazine, but CBS’ Johnson denies it.
“I’m doing nothing at all like infomercials,” she said. “I’m doing programs with entertainment and educational value, that have some familiar marketing ingredients for kids. I’m not here to sell magazines, and I’m not here to watch*4Wheel of Fortune.’ I’m not promoting the sale of magazines. We’re not advertising magazines on ‘Sports Illustrated for Kids.’”
To discover how a TV station might try to meet the FCC requirement without really educating children, a viewer need only check the two-hour block of Sunday-morning programs that KSWB/Channel 69 in San Diego bills as educational. “The Why Why Family,” which explains some simple scientific principles in terms small children can understand (“What happens to the food we eat?” was one recent question), seems worthwhile. But “Oscar’s Orchestra” has animated musical instruments as characters in inane cartoon stories; its thin claim to the “educational” label lies in the use of classical-music clips on the soundtrack.
Worst of the batch is “Gladiators 2000,” a junior version of the “American Gladiators” combat game show. Kids 12 years old or so compete in pseudo-battle contests, running obstacle courses and shooting rubber balls at each other.
Every now and then, the game stops for a quiz, which may or may not be educational. Oral hygiene was the theme of one episode, and contestants were asked this
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Then the kids were informed that the “scientific” name for bad breath (as if 12-year-olds should worry about bad breath) is “halitosis.” Wrong. “Halitosis” was a word dreamed up by an advertising agency for a mouthwash commercial.
Any parent seeking a cure for illiterate “educational” television will face a difficult struggle. The FCC has issued guidelines, but stations decide for themselves if their programs are “educational.” Bright as the future may look in children’s television, the possibilities for abuse, for trash disguised as “education,” are as infinite as the venal imaginations of greedy producers, programmers and station owners. As always, it will fall to parents to make sure their children’s minds are getting some nourishment from their TV sets, and not just empty calories.
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