MPT to double airtime devoted to children's shows

May 27, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

There's going to be twice as much Big Bird, Barney and Mister Rogers for kids in Maryland and Northern Virginia starting next week.

On Tuesday, Maryland Public Television will double its children's programming to 40 hours a week -- packaging itself as "The Children's Channel," MPT announced yesterday. This will include a 5 1/2 -hour block of children's programming with a show host each weekday, starting at 7:30 a.m.

MPT, which is affiliated with PBS, broadcasts in the Baltimore metropolitan area on Channels 67 and 22.

Its move comes at a time when networks and commercial broadcast stations are under fire from Congress and the Federal Communications Commission for failing to comply with the 1990 Children's Television Act, which mandates that stations carry educational programming for kids. They have circumvented the law by describing shows such as "The Jetsons" and "Leave It to Beaver" as educational.

Taking a new, harder line, the FCC in recent months has delayed renewing the licenses of seven Ohio and Michigan stations, demanding better evidence that they are meeting their educational responsibilities in children's programming.

The network affiliates in Baltimore -- WMAR-Channel 2, WJZ-Channel 13 and WBAL-Channel 11 -- each carry fewer than four hours a week of children's programming that would qualify as educational under even the most liberal interpretations of the law.

In 1980, the three major networks were showing 11 hours of educational shows, according to a study by Squire Rushnell, a former vice president for children's television at ABC.

MPT's programming move is a savvy one that addresses the growing concern of many parents over the effects of TV viewing on their children -- especially those of preschool age.

"I think it's wonderful that MPT is making this kind of commitment to providing choices for children on TV," said Charlene Hughins Uhl, chairwoman of the Maryland Campaign for Kids' TV, a statewide organization of child advocates, educators and parents that is monitoring Maryland TV stations for compliance with the 1990 law.

"It's fantastic that MPT is responding to the kids' TV act, and [because MPT is not a commercial station] it doesn't even have to," said Ms. Uhl.

MPT President Raymond K. K. Ho keyed his remarks to the growing public concern about children's TV in making the MPT announcement yesterday at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore.

"There is a cultural war being fought today on television," Ho said. "It is civil war of values and ideas. And public television is fighting for the hearts, minds and souls of our children. As a parent, I know that a major concern is violence and commercialism on television.

"Since MPT has always been a safe haven of educational programming parents could depend on, we are doubling our service to children at this critical time," he said.

The move was welcomed by one of MPT's commercial competitors.

"I think it sounds most appropriate for MPT, because they hold that special place in children's programming . . . and they don't have the profit issue," said Emily Barr, assistant general manager at Channel 2. Representatives for Channels 11 and 13 could not be reached for comment.

Ms. Barr's remarks are in line with the general thinking among commercial broadcasters, who have argued in recent months to the FCC that they should not be forced to carry educational children's programming if they can't make money doing it. They claim children can find programs elsewhere in today's multi-channel environment, especially on PBS and cable channels.

Under the new plan, MPT will consciously take on the look of a cable channel devoted exclusively to educational children's TV each morning at 7:30. It will feature Bob Heck, host of the MPT Kid Vid Club, introducing programs and helping children understand what they saw.

The morning lineup of shows will be: "Shining Time Station," "Reading Rainbow," "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and two episodes each of "Barney & Friends" and "Sesame Street." The programs will be surrounded by graphics, promos and other material aimed exclusively at children until 1 p.m.

MPT also will offer a two-hour block of kids' TV each afternoon starting at 4 p.m. The programs in that lineup are: "Barney & Friends," "Reading Rainbow," "Square One TV" and "Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego?"

On weekends, the kids' programming will start at 7 a.m., with "Lamb Chop's Play-Along" and "Ghostwriter" added to the mix.

Programs that air more than once each day, like "Barney & Friends," will show new episodes with each airing. But once all episodes have been shown, the cycle of reruns will begin.

New episodes of "Barney & Friends" are not due from PBS until September, according to Carol Wonsavange, MPT's director of programming and promotion.

In a related development, MPT also announced yesterday that it will become part of the "Sesame Street Educational Program," which trains day care providers in helping children under their care interact with "Sesame Street."

The program is aimed at children 2 to 5 years of age. MPT said it has funding to train 600 day care providers and will begin in "economically disadvantaged" areas.

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