News flash: MTV, Nickelodeon try hand at the news business

July 17, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Los Angeles -- News for kids and documentaries for the MTV Generation.

MTV and Nickelodeon are getting serious. The music and entertainment cable channels are moving into the news business, and they are doing it at a time when old-line network news is getting more and more entertainment- and tabloid-oriented.

"It's nice to be joining a network that's getting into the news business," Linda Ellerbee said yesterday in announcing a lineup of news specials for children, which she will produce for Nickelodeon. Ellerbee's emphasis on "into" was a reference to continued cutbacks at NBC, ABC and CBS News, and to speculation that either NBC or CBS will be out of the nightly news business in the near future because of economic reasons.

The Nickelodeon specials airing in September, October and November, and plans for a regular newscast for kids, grew out of the success of a show explaining the gulf war to children that Ellerbee produced for Nickelodeon earlier this year, according to Geraldine Laybourne, president of the cable channel.

Ellerbee said that the three specials this fall will teach children about the environment, racism and how to understand television.

"It's wrong to try and censor what kids watch," Ellerbee said, in reference to the latter. "That doesn't work. We know they spend more time with television than in the classroom. But what we need to do is to teach kids how to watch television. Teach them media literacy. That's an expanded view of literacy."

MTV announced at the same press conference that it will air "Racism: Points of Views," a documentary on racism, at 10 p.m. July 24. The program is produced by MTV's news division and will be hosted by Queen Latifah, a rap star. The documentary, which was screened in part for critics here yesterday, explores racial stereotyping, extremism, interracial romance and racism in the music industry. Paul Simon, Carlos Santana, Janet Jackson, Arsenio Hall, Spike Lee and rappers KRS One and Sister Souljah are featured.

MTV also announced a five-part documentary, "MTV Generation," which will attempt to profile the 18- to 25-year-old generation. That program will air Oct. 16.

Is MTV trying to become a kind of social conscience for its viewers -- a postmodern version of what CBS News was in the 1950s and '60s?

"The news shows are just something that make sense for us," MTV programmer Doug Herzog said. "They are a way for us to provide our audience with the information it wants."

MPT to repeat 'Civil War'

Ken Burns' "The Civil War" is the highest-rated PBS series of all time. And starting tonight at 9 on MPT (Channels 22 and 67), those who missed it last fall will get a chance to make amends. MPT is rerunning the series for the next five weeks.

"The Civil War" is one of the great non-fiction television works of our lifetimes, a conscious attempt to make a television equivalent in style and scope to Homer's "Iliad." And it works: Listen to the catalog of American places in tonight's lyrical introduction, an invocation that could have been sung by Homer to the ancient Greeks.

This is a work that literally hypnotizes both the eyes and ears. The thread of poetry and song is carried straight through to tonight's conclusion -- the achingly beautiful love letter written by Maj. Sullivan Ballou to his "dear Sarah" on the eve of his last battle.

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