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Building a Better Fun Factory : For Years, PBS Had a Monopoly on Quality Children's Programming. Now It's Being Challenged by Brash Upstart Nickelodeon, Which May Prove a Bigger Threat Than a Republican Congress Ever Will.

January 22, 1995|Charles P. Pierce | Charles P. Pierce is a writer-at-large for GQ and a contributing writer to Boston Magazine

"I think we are being careful to stay very close to the central mission of what we're trying to do," says Quattrone. "I think there will always be a home for that. For example, we have 'Puzzle Place.' It's a really important new series that has as its premise giving kids a sense of how to appreciate the diversity around them. It's a very important and serious intent--but in a very entertaining kind of situation." Co-produced by KCET-TV in Los Angeles and costing $8 million, "Puzzle Place" is the biggest new children's show that PBS has launched in years. Billed as television's first attempt to teach young children "to celebrate diversity" the show debuted last week.

PBS differs from Nickelodeon in that PBS does not produce any of its children's programming. Much of it bubbles up from the local affiliates the way that "Mr Rogers' Neighborhood" once did. A few years ago, an executive named Larry Rifkin at a Connecticut PBS station watched as his daughter was entranced by a musical video featuring a goofy purple dinosaur. Thus was Barney loosed upon the land. However, this also adds a layer of bureaucracy between the network and its programs. "That 'Puzzleworks' thing is a good idea," says one TV executive. "But I can just imagine the number of consultants they must have had on that."

When PBS launched its "Ready to Learn" project last July, it did so based on vast research and extensive meetings with educators, executives from the member stations and child-care providers. "We discovered that most kids are in some kind of informal day-care, and that 50% of them were in their own home," Jacqueline Weiss says. "We needed to make our children's programming accessible to children and their care-givers when they want to use it. And we needed to add some material between the shows that was targeted to certain skills that kids needed in schools."

"Ready to Learn" is a halting step toward behaving like the commercial networks that are threatening to outflank PBS. It consolidates existing programming within a single concept--much like the kids clubs that have been established to link cartoons on local commercial stations. The morning program block, aimed at preschoolers, features "Sesame Street," "Mr. Rogers," "Barney & Friends" and a new show, "Storytime." The afternoon block is directed at not just preschoolers, but also at preteens. PBS incorporated its popular "Ghostwriter" series with the geography quiz show "Where in The World Is Carmen San Diego?" and the new "Bill Nye The Science Guy" in a 90-minute afternoon strip designed to attract the same audience that used to watch "Clarissa Explains It All."

Moreover, PBS has assembled "PTV Park," a series of animated shorts, to run as segues between the shows in each block. "PTV Park" is populated by P-Pals, animated heads on legs that deliver short educational messages. The whole package evinces a new and sharper PBS aesthetic, and one that, in spirit at least, seems to be a more dignified version of the one that prevails on Nickelodeon. Here in "PTV Park," it seems, there is a sharp sauce atop all those green vegetables.

"One of the hallmarks of public television is that we're free--available over the air free of charge," says Alice Cahn. "(But) does PBS want to be hip? We could be. It's like 'Mother, May I?' You can, but you may not."

Almost everything is moving to Nickelodeon's advantage. PBS has to worry about a general assault from the new Congress at the same time it is laboring so hard to modernize itself. At best, PBS may find itself privatized; Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) is planning to introduce a bill to that effect soon. (But there may be some hope, after all. Gingrich has personally promised to kick in at least $2,000 a year for five years to a privatized Corporation for Public Broadcasting.)

Nickelodeon has enormous revenue streams at its disposal--estimated at $331 million last year--that PBS failed to anticipate years ago. And it is becoming increasingly apparent that the new congressional order plans to defang the Children's Television Act, effectively undoing all of Peggy Charren's work. Laybourne's fundamental premise--that quality children's television can be, of all things, commercially viable--should be immune to these changes. PBS, on the other hand, is going to be fighting too many mortal battles on too many fronts.

Something else might be occuring that would horrify both Laybourne and Cahn: "The Republicans," says Jeffrey A. Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education, "are using Nickelodeon as a Tonka truck to run over PBS."

The people at both Nickelodeon and PBS insist that the two networks simply are each other's opposite half--that Nickelodeon is fun that occasionally teaches and that PBS is teaching that might just be fun. In a large and more complicated world, each needs the other more than each needs to compete. More than anything else, it comes down merely to where on the plate you put the green vegetables.

"I don't think it's competition," says Linda Ellerbee. "I think it's two people putting on television for children that, at worst, does no harm, and that, at best, does much better than that. When I first met Gerry Laybourne, I thought that children's television was run by people of the sort that I'd run up against at the networks whose main interest was how much cereal they could sell, and how many little fannies they could put in the seats. I would hope they wouldn't compete. Wouldn't it be nice if there was room for both of them?"

Meanwhile, a new line of children stands in the Florida sunshine, waiting for the torrents of slime to be blown skyward once again. They are Big Bird's children and Eureeka's kids. They wait politely, hopping one foot to the next. Then the geyser erupts, and children become kids again, squealing, and now they are off to see the Juicy Booger Lady as the slime hurls itself skyward again.

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