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In the U.S., this is never-get-to-see TV

Bold and frank children's programs from overseas, on view at the Museum of TV & Radio, are far removed from American fare.

November 09, 2002|Joseph Hanania | Special to The Times

The camera opens on a child in blond pigtails and a red dress trying to jump a ditch -- and splashing down, instead, into the mud. Soon after, Guido, 11, reveals himself as a boy who has always felt he was a girl, the camera following him as he shops for a dress and goes to a friend's party. The documentary also looks on as he puts on a pair of tights and a blouse, his prepubescent body seemingly transforming into that of a girl.

Strong stuff, this documentary called "The Day I Became Nina." It's the kind of setup piece that might precede a heated discussion on "Nightline."

But instead, it aired on the Dutch network VPRO, as part of its children's programming.

This show and other children's programs from 21 countries will be spotlighted on weekends through Nov. 24 at the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills, giving Americans a glimpse of how those abroad program for their children. This weekend's screenings include children's shows from China, the Netherlands ("The Day I Became Nina"), Sweden, Mongolia, the United Kingdom and the U.S.

"Particularly in Northern Europe, programming is often bolder and franker without being preachy," says David Bushman, the exhibition's curator. "Nina," for example, "was made without tiptoeing around the issue. It assumes that kids are ready to know this." Such a show, he says, could not be made here.

Jenny Buckland, chief executive of the Australian Children's Television Foundation, concurs. She contends that although a show like "Sesame Street" is unsurpassed in teaching young children basic skills, that advantage rapidly disappears as the target audience gets older and the shows become "overly commercial."

By contrast, she says, the 12-year-old Australian program "Round the Twist" may look at topics such as the effect of broken families on children, then lighten its offerings with the likes of a urinating contest, in which 9-year-old Little Squirt proudly outdistances his 12-year-old rivals.

The show spotlighting Little Squirt's achievement won the prestigious Prix Jeunesse competition in Germany eight years ago, then aired in 70 countries.

Nevertheless, it was years before the Little Squirt program was finally shown in America -- on Fox -- and then only after being substantially edited.

This and other examples make Buckland question if we Americans aren't a bit prudish?

"Americans don't realize that humor is a great way to engage children," she says, maintaining that American TV executives focus more on shows that are broadly commercial and generate few waves. What is lost, she says, is authenticity. "Our experience is that although our kids like some animation, they prefer stories about real children living real lives."

David Kleeman, executive director of the American Center for Children and Media, a Chicago think tank, agrees that programmers abroad often take chances their American counterparts don't. He cites as evidence the short "The Breakfast," which aired on Irish public television. In it, a boy at a Catholic boarding school brings breakfast every day to the priest who is his school supervisor. "Every morning, he licks the sausages just enough to get a taste, then goes back and eats his gruel," recounts Kleeman. One day, the boy delivers the breakfast, only to find the priest dead. His reaction? He happily eats the sausage-and-egg breakfast.

Although the film's humor is universal, Kleeman says, its cultural specificity to Irish society has kept it from airing on American airwaves.

The United States and, increasingly, Japan "tend to export global programs stripped of all culture," he says.

That may be changing, however; a small effort is growing to broaden what children in the U.S. see. Kleeman points to an episode of "A Walk in Your Shoes" on the Nickelodeon affiliate Noggin. Airing six weeks after Sept. 11, the show featured a Christian girl putting on a Muslim veil, then visiting a mall alongside her Muslim American counterpart -- and discovering firsthand the powerful stigma of being identified with that group.

Despite such efforts, however, the bulk of idiosyncratic children's programming still comes from abroad.

One such offering is "Ponds of Mirror." In this Iranian telefilm, a strangely dressed boy in a strange land desperately looks for water to save an orphaned goldfish, finally finding the goldfish a home in a pool by a mosque. Even if a region's traditions are different, says Jenna Alden, assistant curator for the exhibition, "it's the sort of quest to which any child anywhere can relate."


(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)Children's Festival

Where: Museum of Television & Radio, 465 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills

When: Saturday and Sunday, noon-5 p.m.

Ends: Nov. 24

Price: Free

Contact: (310) 786-1000

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