PBS' power base: pre-school programs

January 07, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

LOS ANGELES -- Big Bird and Barney are the big story in public television this year.

The two colorful favorites of the pre-school set were cited again and again yesterday by PBS brass who met with the press here to promote the PBS lineup for 1993.

"We're very pleased that we saw some audience growth this year that reverses a downward trend: Our audience of pre-school children is up one-third," said Bruce Christensen, president of PBS. "The work accomplished there with programs like . . . "Barney & Friends" and "Lamb Chop's Play-Along" have paid dividends."

There were two reasons for the focus on viewers 2 to 5 years of age by the PBS programmers.

First, the programmers have the ratings to back up their claims of success with that audience, thanks mainly to the phenomenal success of "Barney & Friends" and the continued appeal of "Sesame Street."

A. C. Nielsen figures show that the audience of pre-schooler viewers rose by about seven-tenths of one ratings point, or about 600,000 pre-schoolers, this year over last year.

The top-rated show continues to be "Sesame Street" with an average daily audience of about 2.1 million pre-schoolers, followed closely by "Barney & Friends." The next most popular is "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," then "Lamb Chop's Play-Along," "Shining Time Station" and "Reading Rainbow" in that order.

"Public television, available to virtually every family regardless of income, continues to be the leading source of quality children's programming," said Jennifer Lawson, the head of programming at PBS. "As we build on our 24-year commitment to our youngest viewers, it's gratifying to see the audience grow with us."

But those viewers are not growing up and going on with PBS. And that was the other reason for all the talk about how well PBS is doing with child viewers: It helped PBS avoid talk of other serious problems.

Membership (which means money contributed by viewers) is down. And, despite some modest gains in overall viewing during prime time, PBS has failed so far this year to attract more young adults. Winning viewers 18-to-49 is something public television still desperately needs to do if it is going to have any kind of future. PBS has the very young (2 to 5 years old) and the older viewers (over 55). What it needs is the teens, twentysomethings and baby boomers. And that's a load.

PBS executives said yesterday that they had a plan for attracting some of those teen and young adult viewers: They are going to air more programs featuring pop music.

"Music is one of the ways of signaling to that audience . . . that RTC you are interested in them and want them to become interested in public television," Ms. Lawson said. In line with that, she promised "more jazz and pop music." That includes a March airing of "The Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert," which was taped in October, and a concert by Elton John taped in Barcelona.

The Dylan concert was carried live on cable. It's going to take more than taped Dylan and Elton John to make any significant headway.

PBS executives spent much of the press conference on the defensive -- even when it came to Barney, the superstar dinosaur.

Mr. Christensen was asked about reports that PBS brass canceled funding for Barney last June, just two months after it went on the air, and that there would be no Barney today if managers at PBS stations had not demanded last summer that PBS reverse its decision.

"Yes, we intended not to fund Barney," Mr. Christensen said. "And . . . there were a lot of stations distressed by that decision. There were some stations, though, who agreed with us and did not think Barney was the sort of phenomenon it turned out to be. . . . We were wrong and changed our decision."

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