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Will Kids Tune In To Watch Quality On Television?

When broadcasters in Washington made their historic agreement this week to provide a minimum of three hours of educational children's television weekly, Jim Rosen, his son, and his niece were horsing around on the beach.

Mr. Rosen, who's vacationing here from Newton, Mass., thinks it's a good start, since most kids' shows are "low-quality junk."

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The broadcasters' decision to voluntarily provide more high-quality programming for children marks a watershed for child advocates. It's also billed as a victory for the Clinton administration, which successfully snatched from Republicans the "family values" agenda. But now comes the real challenge: How do you get kids to watch it?

"You have to trick them," jokes Rosen. "If you don't tell them it's educational, and it's good, they'll watch it."

There's some truth to that. Valerie Orsi of Merrick, N.Y., allows her two children to watch only public television. But her oldest daughter is going into first grade, and Ms. Orsi says she can already see the influence peer pressure is having on her daughter.

"It's frightening," Orsi says as she headed home from the beach.

From the mouths of babes

But Rosen's niece, Chloe Carden, doesn't think she needs to be tricked to watch quality TV. The fourth-grader from Montclair, N.J., says she's grown so tired of the commercials on Saturday mornings that she now prefers movies. If something was billed as "good" and "educational," she says she'd watch it. So would most kids, say experts.

"Kids are natural born learners," says Geraldine Laybourne, president of Disney/ABC Cable Networks. Ms. Laybourne built the Nickelodeon Channel into a successful, entertaining children's channel before moving to Disney/ABC in February. She says to be effective, educational shows have to be interactive and television for preschoolers has successfully done that.

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"It's a lot easier to get them to interact, in just simple ways like selling the alphabet, the way they do on 'Sesame Street,' " she says.

A study by the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania found that between the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and cable TV plenty of high-quality children's programming is available for preschoolers, who do watch it. But elementary schoolers don't have the same TV smorgasbord.

"There is not enough high-quality programming for the elementary school child," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School, noting that kids never stop learning and television never stops teaching, no matter what is on the air.

Challenge for broadcasters

While Ms. Jamieson applauds PBS and cable, she notes that broadcasters deal with a different set of challenges in developing children's television. Unlike PBS, which has public funding, and cable, which can use children's programming to attract customers, broadcasters rely on advertisers who demand large audiences.

"The question you have to ask the advertisers is: Can you make longer-term commitments to smaller audiences to keep quality programming on the air long enough to find more of an audience?" she says. Newspapers should do more to alert parents of quality programs, Jamieson adds.

Laybourne contends the term "educational" needs to redefined. No child will sit through a math lesson - no matter how entertaining - if it's either ahead of or behind his understanding. As a result, it's difficult to produce "educational shows" for a general audience that ranges from toddlers to junior-high schoolers.

"Until computers are merged with television enough to create a level of interactivity that allows kids to enter the subject matter where they are and with the questions that they have," Laybourne says, "it's going to be really tough to make it compelling."

But Laybourne says the networks can produce what she calls "pro-social" television and get ratings. "Television can put on little girls on who are feisty, who are math-literate, who are interested in computers, have boys as friends. That's a good thing television can do," she says, noting that this fall ABC will begin carrying "Doug," a program about a "decent little boy."

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