ABC to put kids in Mr. Clinton's neighborhood

February 19, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

President Clinton, who received some pretty good reviews for his prime-time performance this week, moves into Saturday-morning kids' TV tomorrow, with "President Clinton: Answering Children's Questions," at 11:30 on WJZ-TV (Channel 13).

"We're taking the president up on his promise to stay in touch with the American people and continue the dialogue he began during the campaign," said anchorman Peter Jennings, who will moderate the live show produced by ABC News.

"And who better to begin with than America's youth, many of whom are living with problems this country is dealing with," said Jennings, "problems like poverty, lack of health care and racial tensions."

If that sounds like serious stuff for Saturday morning TV, that's exactly one of ABC News' goals, according to Patrick Roddy, the show's executive producer.

"Our hope is that this show . . . will be part of a process of more information-oriented programming for young people making its way onto network television," Roddy said.

Saturday's live broadcast will be the fourth ABC News special with Jennings that speaks directly to young people about the issues and challenges they face. The other three dealt with young people's thoughts and fears about the Persian Gulf War, acquired immune deficiency syndrome and prejudice.

The format of the 90-minute show is to be that of a live town meeting held at the White House with an audience of 40 children from around the country participating, said Roddy. Besides the White House audience of kids, children watching at home can call a toll-free number -- (800) 648-8094 -- during the show to ask questions.

While the show is targeted to viewers 8 to 15 years old, "this is really a show for the whole family," Roddy said.

"We're encouraging parents to sit with their kids and watch it, because we think the parents, one, are going to learn something themselves, but, two, this is a show that we hope really prompts dialogue within the family about the issues that the country is confronting."

Viewers who have watched the other ABC News specials know serious does not have to mean dull TV. Besides the give-and-take of the Q-and-A format, tomorrow's special also will include a segment featuring Jaleel White in character as the nerdy Steve Urkel of the ABC sitcom, "Family Matters."

Roddy said Urkel is used in a taped segment to help explain the "way the political process works" in an entertaining way. The segment finds Urkel on Capitol Hill trying to get a bill passed that assures "clean and good air for all living things." Along the way, Urkel gets some help in steering his bill through Congress from Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole and House Speaker Tom Foley. Dole and Foley play themselves.

"Most adults may not get it or they may say that was really stupid. And, if that's their answer, then it has worked," Roddy said. "It's designed for kids to get it. They know this character and they know how he acts, and it's just a fun little six- or seven-minute piece."

Fun aside, Roddy denied that ABC News was being used by Clinton and his advisers in producing the show. "Keep in mind there's another part to all this," he said. "We've been doing these for two years, long before Bill Clinton ever came on the scene.

"We're the ones who approached the White House, and we've been haggling over what the right date was. We wanted to do it a month after they came into office, and they agreed.

"This has not been a case of the White House dictating to us or their engineering this. A lot of people keep asking the question 'Aren't you just playing into the hands of the White House?'

"I'm just setting the record straight," Roddy said. "This is something we initiated and it's our format."

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