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PBS Special Report: Fun is the secret ingredient in PBS’s kids lineup

At PBS, evaluating new children's programming is a serious business. Each new project is thoroughly checked out in terms of key criteria such as its instructional objectives, its evaluation plan, the expert advisors and outreach program. Yet, in the end, what...
November 1, 1997

At PBS, evaluating new children’s programming is a serious business. Each new project is thoroughly checked out in terms of key criteria such as its instructional objectives, its evaluation plan, the expert advisors and outreach program. Yet, in the end, what it all comes down to for Alice Cahn, PBS’s director of children’s programming, is the all-important fun factor. ‘The fact is, there are few words that go together better than education and entertainment,’ she says, essentially summing up PBS kids programming philosophy.

While the current proliferation of so-called FCC-friendly programming appears to offer children more choices, Cahn believes that, in reality, appearances may be deceiving. ‘One of the things I think is so important to teach children . . . is how to make choices. My concern is that even though there’s more stuff, there really aren’t more choices, because we are in a business where, if something is popular, somebody makes another one.’ The challenge to all children’s broadcasters, she believes, is finding producers and writers who have something unique to say and are capable of saying it in a unique way.

But the entry of commercial networks into PBS’s traditional domain of educational children’s television hasn’t posed too much of a threat, says Kathy Quattrone, executive vice president for PBS Programming Services. According to Quattrone, viewership of PBS’s children’s programs actually increased over the course of the most recent broadcast season. She interprets the increase as meaning that PBS ‘continue[s] to be a favorite viewing choice for children’s programming.’

‘Public television has thrived in this business for the last 30 years,’ adds Cahn. ‘Our mission to provide entertaining programming for children that helps them love learning will not change. I would welcome, and I think parents and children would welcome, more good choices.’

Looking to the future, Cahn and Quattrone see new media as logical extensions for PBS. ‘At this point, it’s even hard to know where [the technology] is all going. But, for instance, with digital television emerging where stations may be able to multicast their services, we see a children’s service as one major option stations can have,’ says Quattrone.

Cahn cites the original 1970s Zoom series as an idea that was ahead of the technology available to it at the time. With a new `90s Zoom set to hit the airwaves in `98, ‘we’re thrilled that the technology has finally caught up to allow us to have [a] truly interactive show.’

The PBS Ready to Learn (RTL) service, a full-day children’s TV schedule, on-air educational spots and outreach efforts, is another prime example of PBS’s desire to use new technology to extend the reach and impact of its kids programming. ‘As we developed the RTL service, we did it with an eye towards not only what appears on the television screen, but all of the various other ways in which that content can appear and then have an effect on children and their parents,’ says Quattrone.

Another area of focus for PBS is continued and even increased upfront involvement in children’s program development, with both domestic and international producers. ‘To form the real heart of our service, we definitely want to be involved early on in the development, because we want to make sure . . . that we have the range of programming that we feel is important to a really complete service,’ says Quattrone.

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