Kids on cable: future filmmakers offer alternatives to cartoons
There is a revolution, of sorts, under way in children's television. And it is being led, in part, by children themselves. It comes as a result of the growth over the past decade of cable television - and development of local ''public access'' channels set aside for community broadcasting projects.
And it comes as a rejection of, as one children's TV activist put it, ''wall-to-wall monster cartoons,'' which she says comprise the bulk of children's programming offered by the major commercial networks.
At the heart of the revolution are a number of community-produced programs on cable television that are planned, directed, and watched by children.
Programs such as ''Kid Stuff'' in Syracuse, N.Y.; ''Kids Alive'' in Bloomington, Ind.; and ''KIDS-4'' in Sun Prairie, Wis., are becoming models for communities across the country interested in offering children a view of television from behind and through a television camera rather than solely from in front of a TV set.
Peggy Charren of the Boston-based Action for Children's Television (ACT) says children's programs on public-access channels are now ''in their infancy'' but hold enormous potential for the future.
She says she'd like to ''get children's television to be more like a children's library.''
ACT has recently published a booklet designed to encourage cable-television companies, community groups, parents, and educators to support the involvement of young people in cable television. The group is encouraging children to ''change the face of children's television by making their own cable programs.''
Currently more than one-third of the homes in the United States subscribe to cable television.
Under the terms of local franchise agreements between an individual cable company and a city or town, the local governing body may require that one or more channels on the cable system be left open for local use. The cable company may also be required to help finance local programming as well as supply video cameras and other equipment needed to produce local television shows.
Four years ago, Abby Lazar, a former teacher and news reporter, decided to make the most of an available public-access cable channel in Syracuse.
She organized a reporting staff of eight children, age 7 to 14, and sent them out to televise news stories of general interest to children. The show, ''Kid Stuff,'' has won several awards and is viewed on cable systems in at least five states.
''Kid Stuff'' reporters have covered issues including disarmament, working mothers, the bottle bill, and computer literacy. The show has also featured regular reports on children who have made outstanding accomplishments.
''Kids need to develop a sense of responsiblity to their community - this program helps,'' Ms. Lazar says.
''When they first start, many of the children are afraid to stand in front of the camera or to speak into the microphone. But after a short time they develop poise and self-confidence,'' she says. ''The development of the kids is one of the most satisfying things.''
Ms. Lazar doesn't know how many people watch ''Kid Stuff.'' Ratings, she says , are not crucial to the success of the show. ''The best thing about public-access programming is that it is not like the rest of television,'' Ms. Charren says.
A recent congressional study found that commercial TV stations devoted twice as much programming time to cartoons as to educational programs for children. Legislation has been proposed that would require commercial TV stations to schedule at least one hour per weekday for educational programming for children.
Supporters of local-access programming on cable television say its major advantage over commercial TV is freedom to experiment.
In 1977 an imaginative filmmaker and a group of interested teachers at Millville Elementary School near Concord, N.H., teamed up with the help of the local cable television company to put together a regular series of student-produced television shows.
The program, called ''I Like Kids Creating,'' ran for five years, but it ended when the school was shut down by the school board last year.
The curriculum involved the entire school, according to Gregory Uhrin, who supervised the Millville program. Mr. Uhrin, who is now program director at Continental Cablevision in Concord, says the project ranged from technical training for first-graders to more advanced training in camera techniques, scriptwriting, interviewing, and directing for the older students.