Just think: all `Barney' all the time

TV: PBS' plan for an around-the-clock children's channel sounds great. But just try to get it.

January 19, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

PASADENA, Calif. -- Public television will launch a new 24-hour children's channel starting July 1 with such favorites as "Barney & Friends" and "Wishbone," PBS President Ervin Duggan announced yesterday.

The problem is, most American homes won't be able to receive the channel until they have a digital television set.

"PBS, its producers and member stations invented a new genre called children's programming. In that tradition, our new PBS Kids Channel will extend our franchise to 24 hours a day with more programs that parents trust and kids love," Duggan said in announcing the channel aimed at pre-schoolers to 12-year-olds.

While the channel has a promising long-term future, as more people buy digital TVs during the next decade, the short-term reach of it seems extremely limited.

Unlike Washington public TV station WETA, which is trying to make deals with such area cable operators as TCI and Comcast to carry a planned news and public affairs channel that it is creating, Duggan said PBS will not go into business with cable companies. The reason: PBS wants total control of distribution so as to not have to share profits.

That's a sound goal, but the reality of distribution today is that a digital channel that isn't on cable or satellite is not going to be seen in most homes.

Furthermore, the first viewers who will get digital TV sets are likely to be those who have more money. Thus, the children of the affluent will be the first and only children for a time to benefit from the new channel.

"My own feeling is that the press and some commentators are too pessimistic about digital television," Duggan said, acknowledging short-term problems while citing the precedent of conversion to color television in the 1960s.

"We are optimistic about the long-term future, and we believe that, if you build it, they will come."

Pub Date: 1/19/99

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