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After Big Bird

TWENTY-FIVE years ago, when the Public Broadcasting Service launched ``Sesame Street,'' the program marked the beginning of an astonishing global success story as Bert, Ernie, Oscar, and Big Bird found their way into the hearts and homes of children around the world. By offering programming that was both entertaining and intelligent, the show appeared to hail a promising new direction in children's TV.

Yet except for public television, the dream of more and better programs for children remains largely unfulfilled. Despite the 1990 Children's Television Act, which requires broadcasters applying for license renewals to show their commitment to children's educational needs, cartoons still dominate Saturday morning fare on commercial networks.

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Thus it comes as good news that PBS is again taking the lead by adding two children's programs to its lineup: ``Storytime'' and ``Puzzle Works.'' PBS is also launching a programming initiative called ``Ready to Learn.'' Messages designed to help prepare children for school will air between PBS's regular children's shows to reinforce the lessons young viewers have just seen. These will be aimed at children and their ``care givers.''

The project is proceeding despite uncertainties about funding because, as one PBS executive explains, ``children need it now.''

Do they ever. Even if networks don't produce strictly educational programs, which traditionally have a hard time succeeding commercially, many parents would gladly settle for youthful fare that shuns violence and includes more imaginative plots.

To hasten that change, parents can exert pressure in two ways: First, they can write letters to TV stations, networks, and advertisers, demanding better children's programs. Second, they can resort to the ``off'' button. Clicking off the set reminds children that there is more to life than TV, including books, sports, and games. A darkened screen also sends a message to producers and advertisers that some families will no longer passively accept inane, violent TV fare.

Three cheers for PBS. And three pleas for the networks to follow that lead by committing resources to more intelligent children's programming.

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