Taming The Tube

With debate raging in the U.S. Congress over the fate of public television, and concern rising over tube violence as well, organizers of the first World Summit on Children’s Television – to be held in Melbourne, Australia, March 12-17 – feel the timing of their conference could hardly be better.

Spearheaded by Patricia Edgar of the Australian Children’s Foundation, the conference has been in planning stages for two years and includes advisors, speakers and delegates from around the globe. The idea of the meeting is not so much deal-making as a more high-minded effort to grapple with pressing moral and cultural concerns in children’s television.

Although commercial pressures in the kidvid sector are as intense as ever, execs say new interactive and computer-driven technologies may actually improve chances for a more activist relationship between kids and their TVs. U.S. players attending the confab say honest attempts are being made to counter the inherent passivity of the electronic babysitters and stimulate creativity, participation and activism by young viewers.

A further challenge for attendees is to sort out the cross-cultural issues presented by international markets.

Conference planners Down Under say they hope “to address the importance and vulnerability of children’s television, support and protect children’s minority interests with pro grams reflecting their particular needs, concerns, interests and culture, which do not exploit them, which are wide-ranging in genre and content, which entertain and also promote an awareness of the wider world in parallel with the child’s own cultural background.”

One U.S. organizer is Geraldine Laybourne, president of Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite and one of the most influential figures in kids’ TV. Her keynote speech is entitled “Doing Good in a Commercial World.”

Laybourne points out that “the public TV debate is going on in other countries as well right now.” Combining that debate with other issues of concern such as government regulation, violence and the challenges posed by interactive and multimedia technologies amounts to “a pretty serious curriculum” for the unprecedented confab, she says.

Laybourne is at the forefront of today’s generation of mostly women execs who run kids TV.

Countering some claims that cable could and should replace PBS, and laying to rest the notion of competition, Laybourne says that “public TV has done a lot of good, doing research, educating producers who then go on to other networks. Kids deserve to be thought about; they de serve something extra. Public TV’s mandate has been to educate kids.”

Laybourne adds: “The kids who probably need PBS the most can’t even get cable.”

Over the past few years, though, the success of upstart cable suppliers like Nickelodeon has drastically changed the kidvid market.

The Fox Children’s Network (FCN) – with monster hit “Power Rangers” – leads in market share by a longshot, and will be represented in Melbourne by FCN president Margaret Loesch. The summit, Loesch says, will be “a chance to learn something about what’s going on in the rest of the world and how it relates to children’s TV.”

Award-winning TV journalist Linda Ellerbee will also attend, recently turning her talents to producing Nickelodeon’s Nick News and their current events specials.

“Kids have an enormous appetite for information about the world around them,” she says, “if it’s presented correctly.”

Ellerbee says she hopes to learn in Australia “what the effect has been in other countries of government mandates on educational TV.”

In 1990, Congress passed The Children’s Television Act mandating some educational TV on the networks. “They didn’t say how much or define what it is,” says Ellerbee. The law’s lack of teeth led to laughable abuses, such as “The Jetsons” being passed off as a science show.

“Now, there’s still no rule, but the FCC held hearings a few months ago,” says Ellerbee, who concedes that even mandating one hour per day of educational TV would be a challenge for commercial networks. “How will networks deal with that?” she asks. “Where will they put it?”

Since snapping up Hanna Barbera in 1991, global-minded Turner Broadcasting System has consolidated its leading role in animation programming. TBS launched Cartoon Networks in Europe and Latin America in 1993, and in Asia in 1994. All the networks are in a multilingual format, presenting the possibility of Daffy Duck speaking in Mandarin.

Not content with merely broadcasting cartoons, Cartoon Network prexy Betty Cohen is experimenting with various ways to see “how TV networks can stimulate interaction” and show kids they’re “part of a global community,” she says.

Still, there remains some thorny issues on the horizon for children’s TV around the world. Regarding the prevalence of violence, for instance, Sheryl Leach, creator of Barney the dinosaur, has a lot to say.

Since 1992 “Barney and Friends” has been the number one children’s show on public television. “Entertainment for children does not have to be violent to be successful,” says the Texas-based producer.

With Barney, massively popular with the pre-school set, Leach says she is trying to reinstate “traditional, old-fashioned values of a simpler time.”

“Kids need a safe haven from violence and commercials. To have that go away would be a shame. Let’s take the politics out of it.”

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