Barney's army

March 24, 1994

Go ahead and snigger at Barney, the big, purple dinosaur. Mock the Muppets. Blanch at Big Bird. If you're reading this editorial, chances are you're an adult -- and you just don't get it. Children's programming on public television is to pre-schoolers what canine whistles are to dogs: You might not be able to detect the message, but the kids can. And if recent trends in broadcasting are any indication, they're eating this stuff up.

Public television nationally and locally has sharpened its focus on young children's programming. Now comes word that Nickelodeon, the cable channel whose new-wave cartoon shows have captivated elementary schoolers, is targeting public television's pre-school audience. "If we start getting kids to watch us at [that] age, we have them for life," Nickelodeon president Geraldine Laybourne told the New York Times recently.

We're dubious that any commercial channel can outdo public television for children's programming, especially at the pre-school level. Even if Nickelodeon, or anyone else, invested the kind of money and professional input from educators and others that public TV does, their message will always be mixed up with commercials. Certainly, a newspaper built on advertising doesn't begrudge another medium the chance to sell air time, but TV commercials have a powerful impact on youth; and these days, they don't just sell products, they sell an attitude. Ads aimed at children are shot at 45-degree angles like rock music videos and generally suggest that teachers are square, school is uncool and parents are dopes. That little bit of poison can't help but foul Nickelodeon's good intentions.

Certainly, the cable channel noted the same thing as the Public Broadcasting Service: the past decade delivered a baby boomlet as well as a legion of stressed baby boomer parents hungering for trustworthy, educational outlets for their offspring. This is a gold vein somebody better tap.

Actually, Maryland Public Television began doing so about a year ago and is already seeing benefits. Formerly somewhat of a dry well when it came to kids' TV, MPT markedly improved its schedule for children last year. Last month, it recorded a 165 percent increase in children's viewership compared to the previous February; that's not all due to snow days with kids at home -- viewership has climbed since last summer. Local comedian Bob Heck, who serves as on-air personality for MPT's children's line-up, now gets mobbed at malls -- almost as if he were a big, purple dinosaur. New shows based in lessons on music, reading and math -- "Kidsong," "Storytime" and "The Puzzle Factory" -- will debut on MPT over the next year.

Preparing youngsters to become students -- and not yet consumers -- is among the best contributions television can make.

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