MPT's Barney Bonanza

March 13, 1993

Maryland Public Television is overwhelmed by the success of a children's show, "Barney and Friends," on which it is basing a new fund-raising effort. After airing six hours of the show last Sunday, pledges totaling $40,000 poured in. That's $10,000 more than MPT received the final night of the acclaimed Civil War series a few years back.

Barney is a show about a big, imaginary purple dinosaur. The character has become so popular so fast it has eclipsed the internationally recognized Big Bird in popularity; "Barney" marched in the presidential inaugural parade and kindergartners trapped in the World Trade Center last month sang his theme song while awaiting rescuers.

MPT's use of Barney as a sales tool, however, seems about as disingenuous as beer makers using thin bodies to sell their product. The station has been a piker in children's programming, particularly compared to its neighbor to the south, Washington-based WETA, whose schedule is chock-a-block with offerings for kids. WETA has twice as much children's programming as MPT on weekdays; the gap widens on the weekends.

Until recently, much of that deficiency has been out of MPT's control. Because it receives state education funding, MPT had to devote all school hours to ITV. (That's short for Instructional Television, but could just as easily stand for "immensely tedious visuals.") With ITV funding all but evaporated, the state and MPT now agree they'd both be better off if this type of programming airs overnight when it can be videotaped for school use.

That opens MPT to more programs for pre-schoolers, a group that can benefit from quality public TV. "We want to be the children's channel for healthy, wholesome, uninterrupted children's programming," says MPT's new programming director Carol Wonsavage. The schedule changes should start this summer. The make-over of Maryland Public Television as a children's channel by day is welcome. Like a friendly, purple dinosaur, MPT may finally start speaking to children, too.

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