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COUNTERPUNCH

Education and Entertainment Can Coexist

October 16, 1995|LARRY CEDAR | Larry Cedar is a veteran actor who has appeared on television, in movies and onstage

It was with great interest that I read "Fighting the Good Fight for TV, Again" (Calendar, Sept. 16) about Newton Minow's search for the answer to the question: ". . . What are broadcasters doing that's good for kids?" My curiosity was stimulated not only as a concerned parent (I have two daughters, ages 10 and 7) but also as an actor who has been involved on more than one occasion with children's educational television.

From 1986-93 I starred in the PBS series "Square One TV," produced by the Children's Television Workshop (the creators of "Sesame Street"). The show taught math through the use of comedy sketches, music videos and weekly mysteries. The program was innovative and critically well-received, not to mention a great deal of fun to make. Its only drawback was its limited exposure to the public at large.

The problem with "educational television" always seems to be a variation of the Broccoli Theory, i.e., anything good for you can't possibly be any good (to watch, that is). But whether or not a show stays on the air is often a matter of getting viewers to take that first taste, to tune in that first time. Once the connection's been made, a truly excellent show will have little trouble holding its audience regardless of its intent, educational or otherwise.

As commercial stations go, hesitancy on the part of audiences naturally leads to hesitancy on the part of programmers who, after all, must somehow deliver a rating large enough to justify charging profitable advertising rates. And even when they put such educational programs on the air, they're usually afraid to use valuable promotional resources on such "high-risk" products.

Shows that "serve the public interest" often get buried beneath the media blitz aimed at promoting more commercially viable material. They never even get a chance.

Earlier this year I completed work starring in a new live-action children's educational show called "A.J.'s Time Travelers" (UPN / KCOP-TV Channel 13, Sundays at noon), which is brought to you by the creators of "Beakman's World."

Each week, crew members of the time machine Kyros reach back into history to meet and learn about historical heroes such as the Tuskegee Airmen, Aristotle and Henry Ford. At the conclusion of each episode, they must pass a test about what they've learned or lose the time machine to the evil villains Warp and the Giggler. The show is highly imaginative and entertaining for both children and adults, complete with colorful effects, innovative camera work and zany physical comedy.

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Of course, the best placement for the show in terms of audience exposure would have been network children's prime time. The show was initially pitched to the majors but was passed over as a show "more suited for public broadcast." Eventually, the show found its home with a syndicator specializing in animated action adventures. I'm sure there were even those within the syndicator's ranks who argued against buying a show of such lofty intent. But thankfully they took the risk. Was our position enhanced by the FCC law currently under consideration, which, if passed, would require broadcasters to program one hour of children's television a day? Perhaps.

The Federal Communications Commission grants broadcasters licensed access to a limited number of "public" airwave frequencies. Its job is to then safeguard what is, in theory, public property from potential commercial abuse by the licensees. Even so, the FCC law would not be a solution. Such a requirement could be easily subverted.

It would be like requiring Ben & Jerry's to make one gallon of carrot juice available for every 23 gallons of ice cream sold. You can just imagine where Ben & Jerry's would place that carrot juice and how many people would ask to buy it, even if they found it. After all, most people come to Ben & Jerry's for ice cream!

Of course, the airwaves are not exactly an ice cream store. Ice cream stores can be opened any time, anywhere, and sell whatever flavors they like. But the public comes to television for more than just dessert. And that's the difference. Broadcasters have been given access to a precious and limited commodity: the public airwaves. As such they have an obligation to offer programming that serves, not just their own, but the public's interest as well. Broadcasters should keep making the effort to schedule and promote educational television, lest they abandon this obligation. We, the public, are in turn obligated to let broadcasters know that we want this kind of programming by tuning in.

Finally, the creators of children's television have an obligation to keep giving broadcasters programs enticing enough to draw viewers--a tough proposition to be sure when it comes to "educational" material. But that's always been, and always will be, the challenge of educators everywhere . . . keeping it interesting!

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