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Tv Takes Off The Gloves For The Kids

June 04, 1987|DIANE HAITHMAN, | Times Staff Writer

First, a stretcher bearing an unidentified body is rushed to an ambulance from an apartment building. Later, several vials of blood are pulled from a refrigerator. A hospital technician runs a test on the blood.

Then, floating on the impersonal face of a computer screen, come the following words: "HIV POSITIVE. AIDS POSITIVE. CONTACT ALL RECIPIENTS."

Welcome to the "CBS Schoolbreak Special."

The "CBS Schoolbreak Special" is children's television. The late-afternoon specials are designed for junior high and high school students. Yet the subject matter of the Emmy Award-winning series over the past four years has been far from childish.

Teen-age suicide. Racism and social-class discrimination. Drug abuse. Teen-age pregnancy. Nuclear disarmament. Drunk driving. Homosexuality. Death in the family. The existence of God. And, for next season, acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

These are just a few of the topics "CBS Schoolbreak Special" deals with during cookies-and-milk time after school.

Judy Price, CBS vice president of children's programs and daytime specials, is the person responsible for getting the specials on the air--and she says that when it comes to issues affecting teens, nothing is off limits.

The only concession Price makes in the content of the specials is to make sure they contain nothing that would be unacceptable to schools, since the programs are often used for educational viewing in the classrooms. "It's very important the programs get this kind of exposure," Price said.

Price, who was vice president of children's programming at ABC before joining CBS in 1983, got into children's programming for a surprising reason: She could get more controversial subject matter past the network censors than with adult programming.

"I could get away with more, which is strange, isn't it?" Price said recently at her sunny office at Television City. Filled with stuffed toys and fairy-tale puppets, a tree dangling small red hearts and whimsical hats shaped like miniature dinosaurs, it is the corporate version of "Pee-wee's Playhouse."

Continued Price: "I think we've broken a lot of ground where people would not have dared to go in prime time. I feel very strongly that there are things in our society which should not be ignored just because they are controversial."

She said that she has found CBS extremely receptive to her ideas, despite societal pressure to keep programming for children non-controversial.

Planned for the future are specials about life-support systems (two teen-age sisters confront the right-to-die issue with their grandmother, who is brain-dead from a stroke); stepparents; a teen-ager who keeps her baby, and a story called "Soldier Boys" that shows the ugly side of battle to kids dazzled by the glamour of war as depicted by movies and TV.

Price, who has daughters aged 20 and 21, believes that programming intended for young people 12 and up, as the "Schoolbreak Specials" are, should not have to conform to the same standards as shows for small children.

"There is an age group we feel we should be reaching, and if we have to make it safe for 2-year-olds, we can't do it," she said. "If a 2- or 4-year-old were to watch it, they wouldn't understand it anyway."

The special on acquired immune deficiency syndrome, titled "An Enemy Among Us," will very likely receive a prime-time airing in the fall as well as being part of the "Schoolbreak Special" series, which airs in the afternoons.

In the hourlong drama, a teen-ager who received a blood transfusion three years earlier for a sports injury discovers that he has been exposed to the HIV virus. Though the boy has not developed AIDS, his life is thrown into turmoil as his school, his friends and his girlfriend's family react to his condition with ignorance and fear.

Informing teen-agers about the risk of AIDS is becoming a mini-trend at the networks: ABC also plans a special called "Just a Regular Kid: An AIDS Story," tentatively scheduled as the fall premiere in the "ABC Afterschool Specials" series. In this story, scheduled for Sept. 9, a 16-year-old high school boy takes an aggressive stand against allowing a child with AIDS to return to class at a nearby elementary school. Then he learns that his best friend has the disease.

For CBS' treatment, Price and the show's producers at Helios Productions thought it important to create an "innocent" AIDS victim--that is, someone who had gotten AIDS without any sexual activity that might be judged unacceptable by the audience.

A physician, portrayed by Gladys Knight, comes to the boy's school to explain the risks of and misconceptions about AIDS to his classmates. In doing so, she uses explicit terms: condom, oral sex, vaginal sex.

"We can't leave it to chance in terms of kids understanding," Price said. "Many people object to sex education in the schools, but they don't teach it in the home. There are kids who don't know very basic things."

Price feels a responsibility to focus on issues that provoke a wide range of opinions and responses, rather than what she calls "safe issues."

"What two sides are there to child abuse?" she asked. "I don't want to demean such issues by calling them 'safe,' because they are very, very important. But they are not controversial."

Naturally, CBS gets its share of complaints from parents when "Schoolbreak Specials" discuss sex or religion, but "our positive mail, and I can say this unqualified, has always outweighed the negative at least four to one.

"I think it's real important that, when we cover an issue, we present it in a well-rounded way that provokes discussion. We cannot solve a problem in a one-hour special, but at least we can explore it."

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