PBS: The haven for kids is no longer safe from Congress

March 19, 1995|By SUSAN REIMER

My children are not permitted to watch television during the school week. Unless, of course, they are driving me crazy. Then they can watch all the TV they want.

But it has to be public television.

I imposed this condition when I found my 8-year-old daughter watching VH1 and reruns of "Golden Girls." "At least I'm not watching MTV," she protested.

Well, I thought, it's only a matter of time before they are watching Oprah and Ricki Lake while I'm trying to get dinner on the table. So I gave them a choice: public TV only. Or a Swiss convent school.

I would like to argue that the attack on public television by the Republican Congress is an attack on one of the more dignified sides of American life and its loss would only mean more of the pulp fiction we get from networks.

Though that is true, it is not my argument. Public TV is a safe place for my kids to be. Safe from violence, safe from implied sex, safe from commercial exploitation. Safe from inanity.

For years, "Sesame Street" was the only reason I got any housework done. And that is true of every mother I know. I spent plenty of time watching it with my children (I was the first in my neighborhood to spot the budding romance between Maria and Luis), but I also made plenty of beds while they watched it.

My children are older, and they can make their own beds. Now, public television is where I send them to stop the bickering. There they will find "Ghostwriter" or "Carmen San Diego." They are safe from "Roseanne" reruns.

This attempt to eliminate funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting baffles me. There is no survey that indicates Americans repudiated the Democratic Party because of what they perceived as the elitist nature of public TV.

Surely, we did not send all those Republicans to Congress and promote them all to committee chairmanships so they could barbecue Big Bird. Angry white men no doubt made up the largest part of the viewing audience for Ken Burns' "The Civil War" and "Baseball." I bet their children grew up on "Sesame Street." Did any of those congressmen ask their wives about this?

Did they ask their kids?

A survey by Children Now of kids ages 10 to 16 surprised even the pollsters: Most said they and and their peers were heavily influenced by TV and that it should teach them right from wrong. They said TV showed too much sex before marriage and that kids like themselves would by influenced by that. The children also said TV portrayed parents as more stupid and less sensitive than they found their own parents to be.

We have underestimated our children's sensitivity and intelligence. They know exactly what they are seeing on commercial television, they sense that it is bad, and they don't think it should be. My children caught an episode of "Married . . . With Children" and knew instinctively I would disapprove. But they knew something else, too. "Those kids were so rude," Jessie said.

"The Cosby Show" is OK. So is "Full House." I can live with "Saved by the Bell." But when I don't know what is on the TV menu, I say, "Only public TV."

The Learning Channel and the Discovery Channel are wonderful. The reruns on the Family Channel or Nickelodeon are quaint. But those are cable channels, and 40 percent of America isn't wired for cable and more choose not to subscribe to it.

James P. Steyer, president of Children Now, said parents "should talk to their kids about the kinds of moral choices they're watching."

Valuable advice and a wonderful concept. But during what hour of the day?

Although my children would argue the point, I am not an overprotective mother certain that Satan is a network programmer. But I am a working mother strangled by her schedule, and I do not have time to screen TV shows before my children see them or to watch with them and interpret what they are seeing.

I wish I could. I am sure there are good lessons on network TV, and I would like my children to learn them before they buy their own subscription to TV Guide. But I don't have time, and neither does any mother I know. So we make the safe choice, the public television choice.

Write your congressman and tell him how you feel about the threat to public television. Tell him that if he wants to eliminate the safest place on the dial for kids, he can read to them them while you fix dinner.

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