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WANTED: a better television diet for today's young people

`IN the present video culture, with its emphasis on speed and ease, ideas have, it seems, become more fleeting and less valued. ``We are drawn toward those images that pack a bigger punch, provoke a more visceral reflex, or capture more cunningly our mercurial attentiveness.

``We have become the age of the flash and the zap, the hour-long epic, the thirty-minute encyclopedia, the five-minute explanation, the one-minute sell, the ten-second teaser. The temporal restrictions of technology have imposed their limitations on us as human beings.''

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So writes Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in the foreword to a thoughtful new book, Television And America's Children: A Crisis of Neglect (Oxford University Press, New York, 194 pp., $18.95).

Its author, Edward L. Palmer, a children's educational programming pioneer, addresses a concern of discerning parents, teachers, and other children's advocates - the dearth of quality in television shows for children.

Lack of quality, or even suitability, has not, however, restrained children's viewing practices.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that by the end of high school, America's children have spent more time watching television than doing anything else except sleeping - 15,000 hours on average.

The Journal also described the endless TV hours that have captivated children as ``...largely a blend of adult programming - sitcoms, game shows, steamy dramas, crime-and-car-chase `action' shows - and cartoons, often starring an animated version of a commercial toy.''

What little there has been on commercial channels for children has been crafted by marketing interests.

Only occasionally does commercial TV provide programs designed to uplift, inform, or educate children, according to Palmer.

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Such needs are being largely met only on public television, he says - but insufficiently.

Cable and videocassettes for children do offer quality in viewing, but their accessibility is limited, mainly because of costs.

Palmer presents the case, concluding that commercial broadcasters cannot be looked to for quality in regular TV programming for children. Their interest is business - the business of bringing a market segment to advertisers.

Children are not an important market for consumer goods - they don't buy very much, he comments. Thus, cable's audience base is insufficient to provide much educational fare.

Even public television in the United States is an unlikely present source for what is needed to serve children.

Public TV, the author says, `` drastically and chronically underfunded. More importantly, it is undependably funded, and funded in such a way that successes can rarely be repeated, while inefficiencies perpetuate themselves.''

This is not the situation in other advanced nations.

Part of the reason is timing. The US pioneered regulation of the use of public airwaves. And early on, there were no sound, forward-looking educational policies.

Other countries learned from US mistakes. They began requiring that regularly scheduled segments of air time meet the needs of children. Palmer describes a number of positive program ideas that are working well for children in other nations.

Also, other countries are more willing than the US to finance adequate numbers of children's shows.

Palmer explains:

``For each American, our Public Broadcasting Service receives support of 1.25 pennies a day. British per capita support is three and a half times as great as ours, and Japan's more than two and a half times our own.''

Government in America has not proved to be an active friend of children's TV. Especially in the 1980s, the Federal Communications Commission has resisted pressure to come to the educational aid of children.

Now, however, Congress is considering legislation that would require stations to prove they are serving children's needs.

It is encouraging to learn from Palmer that television is assuming the role of promoter of books, encouraging reading among children. He cites the ``Reading Rainbow'' series for elementary school children as an example. He also mentions ``Sesame Street,'' a show he helped develop.

``Sesame Street'' teaches letters, numbers, and reading skills to preschoolers, and has responded not only to the praise of its many supporters, but also to the concerns of its critics.

There was never a major challenge to the claim that its highly entertaining, even electrifying ``this-is-fun'' format attracted, held, and educated its young audience.

Worry arose because the sugarcoated entertainment that wrapped the educating elements seemed, to some, destructively addictive.

Children later found school, with its quieter atmosphere, and learning itself, which often requires thoughtfulness and personal effort, ``boring.'' They became ``hooked'' on what was entertaining - the moving, changing images emanating from the TV box.

In his foreword, Boyer says that students must ``...become literate in the use and understanding of visual images....

``Our children must learn how to spot a stereotype, isolate a social clich'e, and distinguish facts from propaganda, analysis from banter, and important news from `coverage.'

``In a world where students are deluged with messages from every side, we must help them become more sophisticated as message senders and receivers.''

In other words, proper use of a TV set involves knowing considerably more than how to switch its dials and push its buttons. It requires thinking, judgment, evaluation.

Palmer believes that the potential of television as electronic teacher is boundless. As it serves in partnership with the school, it may do much good.

He closes the book with proposals for fully bringing TV of quality to our children's screens.

Cost effective, as well as comprehensive, Palmer's ideas may well be welcomed and supported by those who understand the need for drastically improving the television diet of our children.

It's a priority we can't neglect.

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