PBS Special Report: Station philosophies

Six PBS stations with a special interest in children's programming-either as producing stations or as stations that put a heavy emphasis on their children's schedules-share their individual station philosophies....
November 1, 1997

Six PBS stations with a special interest in children’s programming-either as producing stations or as stations that put a heavy emphasis on their children’s schedules-share their individual station philosophies.

*RMPBN, Colorado

Bobbie Carlton, public relations manager

Rocky Mountain Public Broadcasting Network (RMPBN) is one of the region’s foremost institutions with a mission to help families and communities prepare children for school and life. From its beginnings as a single station serving only the Denver metropolitan area in 1956, to its current status as a two-station statewide network also providing satellite service to all of North America, RMPBN has always made high-quality, useful children’s programming a prominent part of its schedule.

As a single station in 1956, RMPBN’s Channel Six was originally part of the Denver public school system. It is now a community licensee supported by the contributions of 70,000 household members statewide.

The overall network programming philosophy is to be distinctly identifiable as part of our community and offer high-quality programming consistent with the practical, informative and creative content PBS is valued for.

The Rocky Mountain region has a young population, and families with children are a key part of our audience and membership. So, nearly a third of our entire schedule (seven days a week, 24 hours a day) contains programming specifically for children under age 12. Parents in our audience can safely tune to Channel Six in Denver and Channel 18 in western Colorado with total confidence. Our children’s programs hold kids’ attention, help them adjust as they grow up, help them understand letters, numbers and words, comprehend shapes, colors, wildlife, science, safety and more.

Our children’s schedule has also included productions from a local animator who brings his very interesting background as a former citizen of India and his perspective as a parent to his award-winning creations. His stories are derived from Indian folktales and in his words can help children from all backgrounds better understand what they have in common. The Woodcutter’s Daughter, produced and directed by Manick Sorcar, aired in September 1997.

Television programming alone does not provide enough experiential benefit to children, so RMPBN is also a key player in providing hands-on activities and materials to families, schools and other child care providers. A significant part of these activities have evolved into what is now known as the Ready to Learn program, which provides parents and educators with materials and activities to help prepare their children to perform better in school. In addition, the Pre-School Education program provides training and materials to day care providers for fun learning activities in their facilities.

The network’s Super School News program is entering its 17th year of service to Rocky Mountain school children who come to the station and produce their own newscasts. The schools work with children at the middle school level to research and create content around current events, then they come to RMPBN’s production facility at KRMA Channel Six in Denver to produce their newscast, which is aired statewide during school hours (a western Colorado production facility opened October 28 at KRMJ Channel 18 in Grand Junction).

In addition, the multiple-award-winning local production Really Short Shows features kids introducing other kids to really cool, neat places in our own community. With its short, snappy format, the show has taken RMPBN kid viewers to airport control towers, monster-sized maps in the four corners region and more.

And there is more. RMPBN’s commitment to the kids in our community is more than a public relations gesture. Our Super Kids Club offers parents a low-cost means to introduce their children to artistic, scientific and educational activities all over the state. Members receive a newsletter and discount coupons to the Store of Knowledge. As well, every month, Kids Club members can participate in no-cost expeditions to places like the Devil’s Canyon Science and Learning Center (a dinosaur museum), stage productions of The Christmas Carol, painting classes at the Denver Art Museum, performances of children’s concerts at the Aspen Music School and more. Kids Club members also observed National Trails Day by taking a hike in Golden Canyon State Park with the hosts of the PBS show Anyplace Wild. The RMPBN Super Kids Club has become a place for parents and kids to come together and do things in partnership with the best activities the region has to offer.

I’m not kidding-there’s more. Last month, RMPBN launched a community service activity for kids to participate in leading into the holiday season.

The Children’s Holiday Sweater Drive was launched at the Mile High United Way ‘Bright Beginnings’ child development exposition in Denver on October 25. The drive is asking for kids sweaters to be donated to RMPBN for further distribution to needy children in Colorado. RMPBN Super Kids Club members are taking the lead in making and asking neighbors for donations and telling other kids that developing their community spirit early is good!

*WEDU, Florida West Coast

Heather Mudrick, director of corporate communications

From its first local educational production of First Grade Reading in 1958, Florida’s WEDU, like most PBS stations, considered programming for children one of its most important missions. Today, children’s programming has changed substantially from the days when programs involved one camera and a blackboard.

WEDU’s latest public television productions for children involve state-of-the-art animatronics, graphic animation and original music. But what’s most important about programs like The Reppies, The Swamp Critters of Lost Lagoon, The Adventures of Dudley the Dragon and The Huggabug Club is what was most important in 1958-a solid backbone of educational content.

In the early `90s, WEDU began looking for preschool projects that PBS stations could use in weekend blocks to help fill the void left by commercial broadcasters’ focus on older children. WEDU helped fill that gap with its first national foray into children’s programming with The Adventures of Dudley the Dragon, a highly acclaimed, award-winning Canadian production. Other producers flocked to public television with innovative projects, quickly raising the bar and the level of competition.

Competing for limited funding dollars means that program producers need to focus even more on quality and their commitment to education. WEDU views its newest children’s television productions as being just one element of far-reaching educational initiatives. One of WEDU’s latest production developments, The Food Groupies, demonstrates the direction in which we believe children’s programming is headed. Not only does it fill a void in programming about nutrition and healthy habits for children, it goes beyond the screen to provide children and parents with information they can use to improve family life-the hallmark of public television that no other commercial broadcaster has been able to capture. Extensive outreach to schools and nutrition organizations, direct targeting to parents and caregivers, and information streams including the Internet, multimedia and digital television capabilities are mandatory components in WEDU’s and PBS’s future production plans.

WEDU embraces these stringent requirements. As well as being smart TV, these plans offer smart marketing opportunities-for PBS stations and their partners and funders-to broaden their audiences, expand their value and impact, and position themselves for a digital age in which blackboards and television will cease to exist as we know them.

*KCPT, Kansas City

Michael Connet, vice president, Educational services

Kansas City Public Television (KCPT) is a good example of how the resources and power of the national organization-PBS-are personalized and strengthened by the local operation. Built around a core schedule of PBS children’s television programs, KCPT has created a local presence known as Kids Television 19 (referring to the station’s broadcast assignment on channel 19) that combines the outreach and local interstitial content to create a strong sense of identity and viewer ownership of services.

In late 1994, KCPT began planning its adoption and scheduling of the PBS Ready to Learn Service and needed special assistance in planning for its launch. KCPT contacted Alice Cahn, director of children’s television programming at PBS, to seek assistance in positioning the soon-to-be-launched service as relevant and important to the Kansas City area child care and parent community. Through a series of consultations, on-site visits and satellite teleconferences specifically conducted for KCPT, a local advisory committee was convened and heard of the support and resources that PBS was providing to the station and the community.

Without a doubt, the core structure of PBS’s Ready to Learn effort continued to be the award-winning, exceptional-quality educational children’s television programs. These programs formed the basis of the sound instructional tools parents and other caregivers could utilize, in moderation, to support their children’s learning. In support of the programs were short informational segments, not unlike public-service announcements, but structured for the development of social and pedagogical learning, and targeted at the children. The only thing missing then was the local information, that would connect the children viewing and their parents, with services, activities and organizations that also supported early childhood learning.

This need was quickly identified and addressed by the staff at KCPT working in unison with their now knowledgeable and committed local advisory board. Specifically, a series of local interstitials, focusing on the community, were produced and aired in conjunction with the PBS spots, creating a truly universal and well-rounded web of information for children and their families.

Speaking of webs, PBS has been a leader in creating online resources for both children and their families with a truly wonderful World Wide Web site. Relaunched this past summer, the PBS children’s site features interactive activities for kids (including a really neat sing-along ˆ la karaoke section), as well as rich content for adults, ranging from parenting tips to media literacy training tools. Once again building on the PBS national focus, KCPT launched its own Web service dedicated to children and families with a Kids Corner and Parents Place content areas. This service can be found at KCPT’s Web site ( and under the Kids Television 19 category.

But the work is not done yet. In order to keep our young audiences motivated to learn and prepared to succeed, new programs to existing series need to be added. KCPT is already broadcasting 11 hours of children’s programming every weekday and is committed to exploring new means of increasing the quantity of these quality programs to its regional audience. Although early in the planning stages, it is thought that the multiple-channel broadcasting capabilities of digital television will be a likely strategy to add more shows into an already filled schedule. Finally, efforts are under way to ensure that this commitment and work are producing the intended results. KCPT is participating in national research, as well as conducting its own local research, into the effectiveness of the Kids Television 19 service based on the national programming leadership provided by PBS.

*KCET, Southern California

Patricia Kunkel, Director of Children’s Programming

KCET in Los Angeles, one of the largest producers of children’s programming among the PBS stations, has proudly earned its reputation of quality and value through such series as Storytime and The Puzzle Place. Recently, the station announced its new brand effort, which is summed up in the phrase ‘Infinite-ly More . . . ‘-and for its children’s and family productions, that means ‘infinitely more educational and entertaining.’ A perfect example of this is The Charlie Horse Music Pizza, a new daily series from Shari Lewis produced in association with Golden Books Family Entertainment and KCET, which premieres January 5 over PBS.

Never has children’s programming been more scrutinized or criticized than it is today. The public and the government alike are demanding that the shows broadcasters offer over their airwaves to our youth improves and enhances their lives. But in spite of the proliferation of children’s programming generated by both legislation and new broadcast venues, public television continues to be the home base for parents of preschoolers who want the best for their children. And with the addition of such outstanding series as Kratts’ Creatures, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Adventures From the Book of Virtues, parents of older children are now seeking out public television to provide their families with programs they can rely on to be educational and entertaining.

Created by Shari Lewis, The Charlie Horse Music Pizza utilizes her many talents in a lively, playful series that entertains both preschool and elementary school children. In addition, the series fills an important gap currently missing in so many of our schools: music education.

With musical comedy, games and the lively antics of Charlie Horse, Lamb Chop, Hush Puppy and new delightful characters, children will learn more about the music that surrounds them and how to make it. Parents will be especially pleased to see the introduction of music into their children’s development, since recent research indicates music education can play an important role in a child’s overall intellectual growth. It’s a win-win situation with a lot of laughter and songs along the way. Entertaining and educational-just what KCET believes in.

Children’s programs will come and go, and there will always be those programs that attract children while their parents wince. But the demand for quality children’s entertainment will continue to grow. KCET and other public television producers are committed to providing programs that put smiles on the faces of children and their parents-series such as The Charlie Horse Music Pizza. There can never be too many of these.

*WLRN, South Florida

Cathy Powers, Ready to learn coordinator

WLRN reflects the interests, attitudes and lifestyles of south Floridians. WLRN has demonstrated a strong commitment to community programming. Viewers can also count on WLRN to broadcast critically acclaimed series from PBS, including children’s programs.

Television is pervasive in our environment. The delivery of high-quality children’s programming, therefore, has become a priority at WLRN. It is the philosophy of this station that children’s emotional, social and cognitive skills are benefited by viewing high-quality children’s programs and doing related activities that enhance the goals of each program. WLRN is committed to helping families and teachers nurture skills in children by providing accompanying program materials and by conducting workshops to demonstrate how to more effectively use PBS programming.

As part of WLRN’s commitment, children’s programming hours have increased to nine hours each day on Monday through Friday, and two hours on Saturday. Additionally, two half-hour parenting programs air on Sundays. WLRN has intentionally expanded programming for children later into the day, enabling families to view programs together. This early evening time block is the fastest-growing time block on WLRN, and one that the station is committed to maintaining.

There is not a more crucial role that PBS can play than in the nurturing and education of our children through the presentation of high-quality children’s programming. Families need a place to be able to come together as their children are growing and forming opinions about themselves and their world. PBS offers programs that provide viewers with stellar opportunities to discuss situations, explore worlds and emotions, and present ideas that encourage both creative and critical thought. PBS provides reasons that generate communication between family members.

An area of concern that WLRN addresses is today’s families. WLRN provides programming that serves as an electronic neighborhood for parents. Coming together via the parenting programs and hearing how others have handled similar parenting concerns and joys can ease the stress of parenting, something the extended family once did. Airing parenting programs is one component of WLRN’s mission to the community. Funding for more high-quality parenting programs, which include issues for older children, special-needs infants, and incorporating the latest in brain research for maximizing early childhood development would greatly benefit America’s families.

Children who have grown up watching Sesame Street and Barney move on to other PBS programs, such as Arthur, The Magic School Bus and Kratts’ Creatures, which hold their interest and stimulate their curiosity. To bridge the gap for the older viewer, programming needs to keep pace with the age appropriateness of the maturing viewing audience, while maintaining the needed high-quality programming essentials. The creation of quality programs for today’s maturing youth would greatly enhance television’s role and add to this age group’s ability to examine and experience a fuller and more meaningful life.

PBS provides us with exceptional value, allowing children and families across the na-tion to experience laughter, empathy, literature, knowledge and more. WLRN strives to make our community stronger by airing the best of PBS children’s programming and demonstrating how to springboard learning from the TV screen into the lives of children and families.

*WGBH, Boston

Kate Taylor, Director of children’s and family programming

In 1972, WGBH launched Zoom and the rest, as they say, is history. The show’s success put us on the map-after all, who doesn’t know that ’0-2-1-3-4′ is a zip code for Boston? Interactive before the term became trendy, Zoom was unlike anything else on TV-not only did kids perform on the show, they actually wrote it. Viewers sent in plays, poems, experiments, films and recipes by the truckload. At one point, Zoom received more mail than the President of the United States.

Zoom started us on the road to making kids TV, and, for 25 years, we’ve been refining our expertise with such series as Degrassi High and Long Ago & Far Away. Occasionally, we’re asked what defines ‘educational TV’ or how one goes about making it. The truth is, we don’t believe there is any such animal, because when you come right down to it, all television is educational, although the lessons it teaches are often the wrong ones. The question, instead, should be how can television better serve children? What positive lessons can it impart? What insights about the world does it provide? How can it inspire kids to get up off the floor and start doing, creating, thinking?

Every year or so, we gear up to develop a new show for kids. There’s a lot that goes into the process, but we always start by thinking about the following:

*Need: What age group is underserved? What skills do kids need to learn? Letters and numbers are critical lessons, but so is learning how to make sound decisions or communicate effectively.

* Substance: What advisors and institutions can help us develop the educational content, and how can we extend that content to schools and community groups? How can we utilize advisors so that their input is integral to how the series gets developed?

*Innovation: How can we push the envelope to create something dramatically new and different? What popular TV genres can be re-tooled to serve an educational purpose? How can we ensure that the content is seamlessly woven into the format?

* Excellence: How can we make each element-from scripts, to music, to sets and graphics-shine?

*Response: How can we inspire change in our audience? What do we want kids to do after watching one of our programs? Read a book? Conduct an experiment?

Here’s one example. Several years ago, a presidential commission report was released showing that Americans were performing poorly on geography tests. (Really poorly-one in seven couldn’t identify the U.S. on a world map.) There, clearly, was the need. Taking a cue from Nickelodeon’s success with game shows, and working with WQED in Pittsburgh, we optioned the popular Carmen Sandiego software and fashioned a game of our own, a sort of Jeopardy meets Saturday Night Live meets Mission Impossible. We regularly met with an educational advisory board and asked the National Geographic Society to serve as consultants. And finally, we developed an array of materials to support the series’ educational mission-everything from teacher’s guides, to kids newsletters, to essay contests, to traveling mall games. Once the show was launched, and we began hearing that kids were poring over atlases and shaping their mashed potatoes into states and continents, we knew we had done our job!

Arthur, based on a popular and high-quality series of books by Marc Brown, is another case in point. (see story page 50 for an account of Arthur’s development). Our idea from the start was to make this the best possible program on all levels-from animation, to scripting, to music. We worked with Cinar to develop an animation style that mirrored Mr. Brown’s marvelous illustrations, we hired some of the most talented writers in the field, and we persuaded Ziggy Marley to sing the reggae-inspired theme song. We try never to skimp on quality, no matter how tight the budget, because we know that every aspect of television plays a critical role in helping to shape a child’s aesthetic tastes and values.

Right now, we’re developing two projects that we hope will push the horizons even further. Between the Lions, a co-production with Sirius Thinking, is a multi-media literacy initiative that will help kids learn to read. (Another huge need since fewer than one-third of the nation’s third graders are proficient readers.) And starting next fall, today’s kids will have a Zoom all their own-a new Zoom that takes advantage of interactive technologies not available 25 years ago. And we’re adding more math and science to the mix, again testing our ability to integrate serious content with a fun format.

Not every series we’ve produced is absolutely successful on every front, but we always think it’s important to aim high. PBS fills a critical niche in the television landscape, even, and maybe especially, in the wake of the recent FCC ruling. It’s our job to set-and to raise-the standard. But let’s face it, our shows had better also be fun to watch. Kids know how to use a remote control!

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