AMERICAN VOICES: Essays on Public Television Programming

A Degrassi Press Release….American Voices/Aletha C. Huston


Essays on Public Television


Aletha C. Huston
University of Kansas

Quality educational programming for young children has been
the hallmark of PBS throughout its existence. Sesame
celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1994, and Mister
Rogers’ Neighborhood
has been serving young children
for almost 30 years. The current initiative to integrate the
programming for young children into a Ready to Learn service
is one means of maintaining and strengthening that role.

Public broadcasting plays a critical and
unique role in providing high quality educational programming
for children. Some people have argued that educational
programs do not need to be supported by government—that
market forces will generate quality and diversity. All of the
evidence contradicts that position. Until 1990, when the
Children’s Educational Television Act was passed, there
was virtually no informative or educational programming for
children on the major commercial networks. By 1994, some
educational programs were being aired, but they occupied a
relatively small amount of broadcast time, often at low
viewing time slots. A content analysis in our research center
indicated that programs shown on the four commercial networks
and Nickelodeon contained less educational content than PBS
shows (46 percent of the time was spent on non-education
content as compared to 13 percent in PBS shows). Market
forces do not work. We need publicly supported educational
programming for children.

Public television serves young children
well, but it needs to develop more programming for older
children and adolescents. Ghostwriter teaches literacy
and problem-solving creatively and attracts a large audience.
DeGrassi Junior High and DeGrassi High are
creative presentations of personal and social issues of
concern to adolescents. Evaluations show that young people
like these programs and learn from them. Programs for older
children could deal with a wide range of important topics
(e.g., body image and eating disorders, struggles with family
economic problems, careers) in varied formats offering models
for coping with problems successfully. Children could be
given access to the arts, to dramatizations of
children’s novels, to biographies and documentaries
designed for their age level. Some of this type of
programming is available from other English-speaking

The potential impact of educational
television can be increased by integrating programs with
print, interactive media, and other new technologies. Such
efforts need to be carefully designed for the human beings
who will use them and to avoid the trap of assuming that
technological gimmickry will do the trick. Good examples are
packages of print and curriculum materials for child care
providers to use in conjunction with Sesame Street and
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and codebooks,
posters, and books for viewers of Ghostwriter to use
at home.

Finally, public television could provide a
valuable service by broadcasting more programs about children
for general audiences. News and public information programs
neglect children, and images of adolescents in the news are
almost entirely negative, portraying them as dangerous and
threatening. Public television could inform viewers about
children’s issues showing some positive as well as
negative images. It could celebrate diversity with programs
about families of various types e.g., single mothers whose
kids are doing well, gay families, mixed race families, rural
and small town children, good foster care. Public television
has served children well for many years; there is more to do.


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