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.
More

Nearly twelve million young people between the ages of three and five do not attend any form of school. Yet, according to the Nielsen Television Index, the preschoolers look at television 54.1 hours a week. What they perceive few people really know; and it is all the more alarming to realize that no effort has ever been made in this country to find out.

In 1954 the British Broadcasting Corporation suggested that comprehensive impact studies on children be conducted scientifically by the Nuffield Foundation. Three distinguished psychologists, Dr. Hilde T. Himmelweit, Dr. A. N. Oppenheim, and Miss Pamela Vince, carried out the project during a four-year period. The British study had the advantage of having a readily accessible control group. Portions of the island, notably around Norwich, had no television transmitters, so the residents had not been exposed to television programming.

The Nuffield examination of television, as extensive as it was, primarily used as subjects children between the ages of ten and fourteen. The few experiments with preschoolers can point out tendencies, but can hardly be interpreted as conclusive. Still, the BBC-initiated studies, completed in 1958, remain the only yardsticks we have.

Parents have turned more and more to the electronic baby-sitter. The risk is that the practice can easily be carried to extremes at the expense of helping the child develop other human contacts or an interest in reading. Parental responsibility lies not only in guiding the child to acquire healthy appetites regarding television; the parent also should be responsible for what the child selects to view on the television screen.

In the realm of young children's television three men have been the pioneers: Robert Homme, Robert Keesham, and Fred Rogers. Children know Homme as the Friendly Giant, an easygoing, gentle giant who would not recognize a beanstalk if he tripped over one. Friendly stands about five feet, eleven inches tall, but to tiny children, whose eyesight is often superior, he is probably eighty feet tall. Friendly has been playing the recorder and chatting with Jerome the Giraffe and Rusty the Rooster since before most of his audience was born. This is his tenth season on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. For five years prior to his coming to Canada, his fifteen-minute weekday visits originated in Madison, Wisconsin, on the University of Wisconsin's television station WHA. Most of this time, the program has been carried in the United States on National Educational Television.

Robert Keesham is the bewigged and somewhat bumbling Captain Kangaroo, who for the past thirteen years has been rattling around in the Treasure House weekday mornings on CBS-TV. An impatient adult, unfamiliar with the program, may glance at the captain's costume, conclude at once that he is a buffoon, and switch channels. But between three and ten million children remain fixed to the set to find out if Bunny Rabbit will outwit the captain and win a bunch of carrots.

Anything but a buffoon, Keesham is a quiet-spoken man, bursting with energy and a complete sense of dedication to youngsters. Captain Kangaroo's get-together with the children lasts an hour, and the program becomes progressively more simplified as the hour passes. This "gearing clown" takes into account the fact that the older children have left or are about to leave for school, while the number of preschoolers watching is growing. Keesham has recently inaugurated a special segment near the end of the program for disadvantaged three-, four-, and five-year-olds. This segment, which is coordinated with the Banks Street College of Education, is not precisely new on the program, but for the first time the material being presented is offered in a step-by-step, orderly progression. Throughout the hour viewers are likely to encounter any number of regular passersby: a farmer of inestimable imagination named Mr. Green jeans, a schoolteacher by the name of Mr. Baxter, and an assortment of talking or performing animals. One of the high points to children and adults alike is the remarkable animation effects created by Cosmos Allegretti.

When Fred Rogers drops by on weekday afternoons to spend a half hour with his friends, the very young, he wears no costume and plays no role other than the one he plays in real life. His visits on Misterogers' Neighborhood, which is seen across the country on National Educational Television, reveal Rogers' psychological orientation.

One of his primary objectives is helping children deal with their emotions. Sometimes he will discuss anger and love with them. (Discuss is a quite proper word because his talks are so personal that they frequently trigger a byplay in which the child may respond vocally to a question and Rogers, anticipating the reply, may follow through to his next point.) Other times he will deal with fears, real or imagined. Later in the program, a toy trolley appears, and the audience is transported briefly to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. There we meet a group of puppets and people in a fantasy land presided over, by one King Friday The Thirteenth. Often a large segment of this adventure is a musical journey of one kind or another. Rogers is an accomplished musician, and when he has a message to get over, he sits down and composes music and lyrics that are easily remembered to carry the message through. Once when a child wrote in asking for reassurance that he could not go down the drain of his bathtub, Rogers sat down and wrote a song entitled, "You Can Never Go Down—You Can Never Go Down." At the conclusion of Misterogers' Neighborhood, we return from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe to the sitting room, where Mister Rogers has a few last remarks to make. "I like you as you are," he finally says to the child. Then to tell good-bye, he sings another of his compositions, entitled "Tomorrow."

Homme, Keesham, and Rogers approach television for the very young from somewhat different directions, but all three believe it is essential for them to establish a relationship with the child at home. And every move they make is calculated to achieve that end. Viewers rarely, if ever, see a child in the studio when they watch The Friendly Giant, Captain Kangaroo, or Misterogers' Neighborhood. The reason is that all three men agree that a child in the studio serves to set up a possible sibling rivalry situation for the child at home. The preference among all three is for puppets that aid rather than undermine the desired relationship. Rogers points out that the small children are almost obsessed with their smallness. He says they readily identify with puppets because they are even smaller. The child is free to put on a hand puppet, have it feel a part of him, and know this is at least one thing he can control.

All three men assiduously avoid condescension. The level of language is straightforward, and if unfamiliar words crop up on the program, the child is generally able to extract the correct meanings of the new words from the context and from repetition of thought. Homme, Keesham, and Rogers want to be regarded as reasonable, nonthreatening adults by the child at home. They believe that no television personality can serve as a parent sub-stitute, but they would like to think of themselves as extensions of the parent, offering additional warmth, understanding, knowledge, and guidance.

Nevertheless, Fred Rogers thinks that television in general could contribute a good deal more to the emotional development of the young. Growing is so important to children, Rogers says, and that is one of the themes he constantly leans hard on. "Playing is important," he tells his small friends. "It makes you grow." When he meets a child, he is likely to remark, "Why, I think you've grown!" And the child may proudly say, "I thought you'd notice that, Mister Rogers. And I only wear diapers at night, too!" Rogers also turns a negative to a positive and reminds children of all the advantages of being small. They can crawl under tables, he says, and do things with their tiny hands that adults could never manage to do without the use of tools.

Rogers works closely with Dr. Margaret McFarland, the administrative director of Pittsburgh's Arsenal Family and Children Center, a division of the University of Pittsburgh's medical school. Before a script is taped, it is carefully discussed by them in a kind of "creative interchange" of thought. From Rogers' standpoint, the result is a refinement of the work which he considers essential and regards as inspirational.

Keesham believes that what Fred Rogers is doing is tremendously important, and he is equally enthusiastic about the part television can play in child development. We have got to keep in mind, Captain Kangaroo reminds us, that children are intelligent human beings with potentially good taste. It's a fact many of us often forget. And, he continues, it is incumbent on television performers to educate as well as to entertain. Keesham thinks psychologists and educators too often try to distinguish between education and entertainment. "Information," he says, "can be presented in a fascinating, entertaining way to rival any kind of conventional material and still produce an educational result." To those who consider Captain Kangaroo almost pure entertainment, Keesham responds, "Look more carefully at the material. A good portion of it is educational matter."

Robert Homme and Robert Keesham were entertainers in broadcasting with little interest initially in children's programming. After each had had his first child, he turned the corner professionally. Homme speaks frankly when he says that "though I knew something about children, I still conceived of myself as an entertainer, not an educator." But after his entrance into radio as a children's entertainer, he began to have second thoughts. He suddenly realized that, like it or not, he was in the position of a teacher. "Those children out there," he says, "were listening to everything I had to say, and I began to think that what I had to say had better be good." His philosophy—that it is important to say and do worthwhile things for children—is clearly reflected in the Friendly Giant. The amiable tall man lives in a castle somewhere near a farm and begins each show with words familiar in many homes: "Once upon a time, not long ago and not far away ..." Then suddenly we are thrust into a theme that runs the length of the program. The theme is explored through a book or through music, sometimes through both. When it concludes, we are left with a feeling of finality, a feeling, Homme believes, that is important for tiny people.

Friendly is, of course, the central figure of the program. But much of its sparkle comes from Rusty the Rooster, a bookish little fellow, and from Jerome the Giraffe. Friendly's easy-natured banter with Rusty and Jerome often allows even an adult to forget that the latter two are hand puppets. Rusty, who by the way resides in a book bag hanging in the castle, represents a very small child, and his primary source of knowledge about the world comes from the books he reads and the discussions with Friendly. Jerome, on the other hand, represents the somewhat older, slightly brash, and more worldly child, who spends a good deal of time wandering about the farmlands. Homme says if a child at home knows something discussed on the program, he is likely to identify with Jerome. If not, he will identify with Rusty. Friendly may take up subjects ranging all the way from poetry to beavers. He does not expect preschoolers to come away with specific ideas on any subject. "What is important," he says, "is for them to see that we adults enjoy knowledge, that we keep our eyes and ears open because the world is filled with things that can make life a little happier."

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.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Is the Greatest Story Ever Told?

A panel of storytellers share their favorite tales, from the Bible to Charlotte's Web.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In