Who are these kids of the `90s? How do they differ from children of other generations? ‘The Way Kids Are’ is a regular series of columns in which we invite readers to help us understand kids. Each column will begin by describing a recent experience with a child, followed by an analysis that will examine what this teaches us about children today. Submissions can be made by contacting editor Mark Smyka by phone: 416-408-2300, fax: 416-408-0870 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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It’s a sight you don’t often see these days: 200 teenagers marching to City Hall to lead a demonstration. Even in a young, activist city like Boston, such an event is rare. Yet, after a rash of suicides and drug-related deaths in South Boston, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, young people from that area knew they had to get their message across to the political leaders who have the resources to provide help.
The mayor, Tom Menino, agreed to a brief meeting with a select group of the organizers, but some of the teens initially felt the administration was not truly responsive. ‘It’s not right that we had to come [to City Hall] to be heard,’ a 17-year-old protester told The Boston Globe. ‘We’re here as a group. He should talk to us as one group,’ said another.
The media were there to cover the march, but few stayed for the aftermath, and virtually none of the coverage was addressed to the audience most directly affected: young people.
WBZ-TV (CBS/Boston), was the sole exception. The station presented a half-hour dialogue between South Boston youth and the officials they wanted to access: the mayor, the school superintendent, a police official and the head of the housing authority. The reason we were in a position to help was that a forum already existedÑa weekly, studio-based talk show for teenagers called Rap Around that the station has produced for the past 10 years. As the producer of Rap Around, my mandate is not to attract advertisers or even the widest audience, but simply to provide a resource that young viewers may not find elsewhere.
It might seem that shows like ours and other local efforts would be thriving in the exciting new climate ushered in by the FCC’s new rules aimed at tightening its policies for implementing the Children’s Television Act. Ironically, the opposite is true. With plenty of network and syndicated programming to meet the three-hour educational requirement, local stations no longer want to invest the time slot or resources in a show of their own.
According to a recent study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, a number of network affiliates plan to cut back on their own shows as a result of the new rules. In our market, for example, WBZ-TV is the only broadcast station producing a local children’s series. This includes Boston’s public television station, one of the most prolific producers of national children’s programming.
What, you many wonder, is really being lost? After all, locally produced children’s shows historically have been underfunded and have delivered relatively small audiences. The new network and syndicated shows, designed not only to educate but to make money, generally have the resources to attract larger audiences.
There are some stations like ours in other markets that produced their own children’s shows long before there was a Children’s Television Act, and they continue to do so. KING-TV in Seattle, well known for its local production, has done a magazine show for tweens and teens for the past five years called Watch This, and has had a regular presence in children’s programming long before that. KRON-TV in San Francisco does its own weekly news magazine show called First Cut.
Stations like WBZ, KING, KRON and others with a history of serving young people have basically said, ‘Let’s do more than comply with the letter of the law, let’s honor the spirit of the law.’ Many stations find creative ways to make their shows self-sustaining, often utilizing existing resources such as crews, studio time, even talent. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
And where there isn’t? Kids lose out. It’s true that the network and syndicated shows most local stations rely on to meet FCC mandates have more resources to attract larger audiences than locally produced programs. Many national shows do an excellent job of entertaining and even a credible job of educating. Yet, public service is often more about reaching underserved segments of an audience than going after the largest whole. Locally produced shows are uniquely able to serve kids in addressing local needs. Think of news: would you really want to rely entirely on the networks and miss out on what’s going on in your own backyard? Kids also need to connect with their community.
As valuable as local children’s programs can be, a station that’s dragged kicking and screaming into producing a show will inevitably turn out a bad show. So, instead of mandating that every station produce its own show, let’s come up with incentives for those who do. Maybe we can make it worthwhile for at least one station in every market to invest in the children of their community, and a local presence in children’s programming can be preserved.
Andy Levinsky is the producer of Rap Around on WBZ-TV in Boston.