What's Good About Children's TV

American television is fair game for its critics, but think twice, says this student of TV, before you disparage The Friendly Giant, Misterogers' Neighborhood, and Captain Kangaroo. The author, father of two small boys, is a writer for CBS News.
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All three programs we are examining are calm and slow-paced. The trigger-happy jolt that is experienced every few seconds in a typical cartoon show is missing. Yet millions of children are sitting still and viewing Captain Kangaroo, The Friendly Giant, and Misterogers' Neighborhood. Homme feels the reason is that small children like to have things seep down slowly. "Witness how they repeat and repeat things and play records over and over again. They like repetition." He says somewhat sadly, "I think the world is preoccupied with the whole notion of change. But there are a lot of things that had better not change. And one of them is the concept of clarity and coherence."

In the umbrage of Sputnik I, many children are being more and more ensnarled in the octopus—like tentacles of technology. The gravitational pull of science is being aided and abetted by parental influence. Scarcely are children able to walk than parents have outlined a complete program designed to get them into the "right schools" and eventually Harvard or Radcliffe. This presumably necessitates any number of assorted intellectual pursuits beginning with the choice of the "correct nursery." Fred Rogers feels this movement is laying the foundation for serious defects in child development. "We've let the emotional side of development go," he laments. "Kids need time to develop their own fantasies, and studying Chinese or Russian, together with a hundred and one other things at age three or four, is robbing them of needed time."

Psychiatric opinion supports the view that it is essential for children to develop the concept of fantasy. Misterogers' Neighborhood, The Friendly Giant, and Captain Kangaroozz all subscribe to this belief. And accordingly, Rogers, Homme, and Keesham have carefully woven fantasy into the fabric of the programs, largely through the use of puppets. At a certain point in life children's ideas of reality and fantasy coalesce. It is important, as all three men point out, to allow the young mind to roam at will through a world of fantasy. And it is equally important for them eventually to be able to discern fantasy from reality, but to enjoy both. Youthful fantasy is also an essential ingredient in the development of problem-solving techniques.

This brings us next to the subject of television cartoons. There are many thoroughly enjoyable, imaginative cartoons worth viewing, but they should be assessed in terms of child development. This is especially significant since the great bulk of children's television fare consists of cartoon shows.

While few statements can attempt to describe accurately individual conceptions of happiness, one generalization can probably be made without equivocation. Happiness is found in the process of resolving conflict. And within the dramatic form this is a recognized principle. In a book or play the story presents a conflict, and following the denouement of the plot we find the resolution of conflict and ensuing gratification. One trouble with most cartoons is that they present us with rapid-action sequences every few seconds. Whatever impossible conflict is established is quickly resolved, usually without a time delay that permits gratification. For example, a mouse is seen slicing a cat in half or throwing him over a cliff. In the next sequence the cat is again whole, and the miniature conflict is resolved. But what is missing is the element of reasonableness. Moreover, a child has insufficient time to submerge the situation into fantasy. Are these harmful to the child? Child-guidance people, by and large, do not regard them as detrimental to children, but they do not find them useful from a developmental standpoint. The cartoons also raise the question of violence, and we are left to wonder if violence has an effect on very young children.

There are those who argue that The Friendly Giant, Captain Kangaroo, and Misterogers' Neighborhood are failing to find reception in the ghetto areas. Yet Fred Rogers will dispute this. When a Milwaukee education station found itself running short of funds to continue the Misterogers' telecasts, the station manager appealed to Milwaukee residents to help keep the program in their neighborhood. The response was startling—more than enough to keep the program afloat. But the point to be made is that included in the audience response were letters from ghetto area children: letters that contained coins, pressed flowers, and even tiny hairs from their pets; notes saying, "Hope this will help, Mister Rogers."

On the ninth floor of a new towering office building in Manhattan a small group of people are forging what may well turn out to be the most ambitious experiment in children's television. Under the aegis of Mrs. Joan Ganz Cooney and supported by the Ford and Carnegie Foundations as well as by the U.S. Oft of Education and the Office of Economic Opportunity, the Children's Television Workshop is trying to develop concepts that will literally channel children's avid interest in television into preparation for the educational journey so vital to their lives. The Workshop, which is part of National Educational Television, is developing a twenty-six week series of daily hour-long programs to be seen on the NET network in November of 1969. In its program proposal, the Workshop describes as its objective the development of a television series that will "promote the intellectual and cultural growth of preschoolers, particularly disadvantaged preschoolers. Not only will it attempt to teach specific information, such as language and mathematical skills, but it will strive for the broader aim of getting children to learn how to think for themselves."

As Mrs. Cooney explains it, "Before we can teach anything, the children's program must first hold its audience—one that is accustomed to slick action-packed television fare. We believe both the content and pace of the show must be lively, entertaining, and varied."

By the time the Children's Workshop is ready to begin telecasting, it hopes to be seen twice daily—morning and in the late afternoon—on about 170 educational stations and on some commercial channels as well. In the view of the Children's Television Workshop, it should be possible to use the techniques of action-filled television cartoon commercials that so attract children simply by substituting an educational message in place of a product. The Workshop is presently engaged in exploring all sorts of advanced techniques it would like to adapt for teaching. At present, it envisions having four adult hosts, two of whom are to be white, and two Negro or Puerto Rican.

New York psychiatrist Phyllis Harris believes television has a special appeal and a particular benefit to the disadvantaged child. "A lot of Head Start kids I see," she comments, "can't sit down and look at picture books for long periods of time. They have to move around. It's not a disease. It's simply a part of their makeup. They haven't learned to sit and concentrate. They move their feet and hands about all the time. But they can watch television while moving their feet and hands. In fact, they can even stand on their heads and watch and hear what's being said. And they'll come away with something."

One of the major contributions that the Children's Television Workshop promises is testing procedures which are to be used to study television's impact on disadvantaged preschoolers. Much of the testing and evaluation of broadcast techniques is to be carried out during the prebroadcast, closed-circuit period. Mrs. Cooney says testing will take place in nurseries and in selected homes where closedcircuit TV will be installed. Unfortunately, the testing is to be limited in the main to disadvantaged children, and no comparative-impact studies will be made on the preschooler.

Robert Keesham expresses disappointment in the limitation of the Workshop impact studies. "I'm concerned about the ghetto child," he says, "and I think television has a tremendous impact in the ghetto—especially in its potential to mold life in a positive way for the ghetto child. But I think that of as much concern should be a study of its total effect on the millions and millions of middle-class American youngsters . . . if only to determine if TV is nothing more than a giant waster of time." Mrs. Cooney has expressed the belief that you cannot change viewing habits or achieve significant impact with programs shorter than an hour in duration. Robert Homme's reaction to this statement is, "She should read my mail." Homme is convinced he is having impact with only a fifteen-minute segment. He has tried to lengthen The Friendly Giant to half an hour. Results, he says, were disappointing. He feels he was able to hold attention an additional fifteen minutes but was no longer reaching the children on the same level. Homme would like to "stretch their minds," but this, he suggests, is not possible for long periods of time.

The Children's Television Workshop estimates the cost of preparing for and producing one season of programs at somewhere between five and ten million dollars. A good portion of that, amount supposedly is to be invested in reusable materials. The Workshop feels it can ill afford to wait until long-range studies are carried out on the effectiveness of the medium as a teaching tool, and it has elected, therefore, to proceed on an experimental basis with as much dispatch as possible. The costs in producing a good educational program do not necessarily run high, but the Workshop's approach involves expensive cinematic and animated techniques, in addition to a team of professional talent recruited for the project. By contrast, a program like The Friendly Giant or Misterogers' Neighborhood involves a much smaller outlay of money. This is true not only because the programs are shorter in duration, but, more important, because the performers have sufficient talent to do more than perform. Both Homme and Rogers conceive and write their own programs. Rogers has an annual budget of three hundred thousand dollars (half from the Sears Foundation, the rest from NET matching funds). For this kind of money, he is able to put together either one hundred thirty programs in black and white or sixty-five in color.

Discussions on children's television frequently cite a program entitled Romper Room as exemplary of excellent children's fare. This program in fact violates every principle I have so far outlined as being standard equipment for a successful show. The philosophy seems to be that kids are little creatures who must be taught their ABC's. Everything takes place in a formal classroom setting, and creativity is hiding somewhere under the teacher's desk or perhaps in a broom closet. The prevailing attitude is one of condescension, and humor is hiding somewhere, too, perhaps keeping creativity company.

It is not enough to leave the initiative entirely to major networks. Much of that initiative must come from the local station managers throughout the country. There is an abundance of talent in any community, and it is a simple problem to ferret it out. Robert Keesham and Fred Rogers have each been talking about developing local workshops to help with local programs. Both propose to aid in training performers in the local communities by revealing some of their own secrets of successful creative programming.

Obviously, the level of children's programming cannot be raised unless we have a clear understanding of what does and does not constitute good programming.

Essentially, quality television for children requires the recognition that it is not sufficient to be entertaining. The program, at the same time, must fulfill the emotional and/or intellectual needs of the young viewers. Homme, Keesham, and Rogers, accepting this premise, are trying to extract the most positive force from the medium. And the Children's Television Workshop, we hope, will share the same track.

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