Webs roll out season geared to kids

Five years after the TV industry came under withering public attack for trying to pass off “The Jetsons” reruns as educational television — because it taught children “about living in the 21st century” — network television is rolling out a schedule of programs for children that industry observers say is the best in years.

“I’m very encouraged by what’s happening,” says Karen Jaffe, president and founder of Washington, D.C.-based KIDSNET, a nonprofit organization that monitors children’s television. “It seems like just about everyone is paying attention to what kids are watching and that’s brought forth some pretty good programming.”

Starting Sept. 1 under new Federal Communications Commission guidelines, broadcasters around the country are required to provide at least three hours a week of programming that “furthers the educational and informational needs of children under 16 years (old).” The broadcasters themselves determine which of their shows meet FCC requirements and have to label them onscreen with an “E/I” logo at the beginning of each program. “E/I” is a rating indicating educational or informational content.

But some critics say the FCC’s definition of what is educational is so general that it’s leading to the same sort of misrepresentation that made a mockery of the Children’s Television Act in the early 1990s — when some broadcasters labeled reruns of “The Flintstones,” “Leave it to Beaver” and some raunchy afternoon talkshows as instructional material.

“For NBC to make believe that ‘NBA: The Inside Stuff’ (12:30 p.m. Saturdays) is anything more than a lead-in to their afternoon sports programming is obfuscation,” observes Peggy Charren, former head of Action for Children’s Television, a nonprofit advocacy group that helped spur the FCC to adopt the current guidelines. On balance however, Charren agrees with Jaffe that the upcoming season is an improvement. “Broadcasters are saying ‘What are we going to do?’ They’re looking closely at what they’re producing and that’s a good thing.”

For its part, four of ABC’s five hours of Saturday morning programming will be branded E/I. The morning will include the two-hour omnibus program “Disney’s One Saturday Morning.” The block contains episodes of new half-hour shows “Disney’s Pepper Ann,” “Disney’s Recess,” “Brand Spanking New Doug” and interstitial elements such as “Great Minds Think for Themselves,” with Robin Williams as the Genie character from the animated film “Aladdin” offering his take on various historical figures.

“If you want to make a big splash, you’ve got to throw a big rock,” says Jonathan Barzilay, vice president and general manager of ABC’s children’s programming. “By building a big event we’re hoping to create programming that kids won’t want to miss.”

Perhaps the crown jewel of ABC’s schedule — at least from an educational point of view — is the new show “Science Court” from the creators of Comedy Central’s “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist.” The animated show features Judge Stone (the voice of comedian Paula Poundstone) presiding over lawyers who attempt to prove scientific mysteries and theories to win their cases. “A clever idea and a great show,” Jaffe says.

Both NBC and CBS each only offer three hours of children’s television in total per week, so all of their programs have to be labeled E/I. NBC has introduced one new show for the 1997-1998 season, “City Guys,” a buddy comedy set in an inner-city high school and two newer versions of its highly successful “Saved by the Bell” and “Hang Time” franchises.

CBS meanwhile, is rolling out four new shows: “The New Ghostwriter Mysteries,” developed at the Children’s Television Workshop; “The Sports Illustrated for Kids Show”; “Wheel of Fortune 2000”; and “The Weird Al Show,” the latest offering from song parodist Weird Al Yankovic. CBS also is taking the risky step of interrupting the flow of its Saturday morning kid block, with the CBS Saturday Morning News from 9-11 a.m.

In an aggressive programming move not normally associated with kid’s TV, Kids’ WB! is expanding its child-targeted slate from nine to 19 hours this fall. The schedule is in part a deliberate attempt to counter-program Fox’s powerful Saturday ayem lineup. “We’ve got some very intelligent, high-quality product,” says Jean MacCurdy, head of programming for Kids’ WB! and president of Warner Bros. television animation. “We think we’re going to do very well with it.” Among other things, Kids’ WB! will have a Norman Lear offering on its fall schedule, “Channel Upmtee-3,” an animated show about a pirate TV station.