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Literacy series ends production—but PBS is reconsidering

Originally published in Current, July 22, 2002
By Karen Everhart

PBS is reconsidering last year’s decision to end funding for Between the Lions, an early literacy series created with substantial support from the federal Ready to Learn program.

Leona's series is pricey but it fits the call for kidvid with a curriculum.

A year ago, PBS placed what was to be its "final order of 15 episodes" with WGBH in Boston, said Brigid Sullivan, v.p. of children’s programming, reading from a letter signed by PBS execs. Production of those 15 episodes wrapped up this spring, and Sullivan advised "all of our most talented people that they should try to find other work."

Between the Lions hasn’t been a big ratings winner for PBS Kids, but it has generated a lot of attention from teachers and policymakers for its curriculum-based approach to building kids’ early reading skills, a top educational priority of the Bush administration. During a White House event promoting early literacy in April, President Bush praised Between the Lions for bringing its "combination of charm, creativity, inclusiveness and, as importantly, proven teaching methods, to the task of educating young children."

The series apparently does help kids learn to read: Researchers at Mississippi State University found recently that children at high risk of reading failure improved their early literacy skills significantly when they watched the show and participated in related activities. Preliminary results from the study, which is still under way, were presented during a closed session at the PBS Annual Meeting last month.

"We’re in the process of looking at the research from Mississippi now," said Alyce Myatt, programming v.p. in charge of the Ready to Learn service and PBS Kids. PBS is re-evaluating its entire children’s lineup in light of "One Mission, Many Screens," a report to PBS on its future role in children’s media [earlier article].

The assessment by children’s media specialist David Kleeman recommended that PBS craft its service to kids around harder, curriculum-based objectives—a quality that describes Between the Lions better than many other PBS Kids shows.

In a PBS restructuring implemented late last year, Myatt was assigned to manage the children’s schedule and Ready to Learn, the U.S. Department of Education program that funds kids’ programming and related outreach promoting school readiness. She succeeded Jinny Goldstein, former PBS education chief, who left PBS last fall.

"What I tried to do when I came in was to pick up from where we were and move forward," Myatt said. Given the conclusions of "One Mission, Many Screens," it would be irresponsible to cut off production funding for Between the Lions without evaluating it against the formal criteria that PBS is now applying to all of its kids’ content, she said.

Myatt asked producers to propose additional outreach for Between the Lions. "Every indication we’ve had was that there was significant educational impact when what was on the air was combined with outreach, and we want to extend that."

The series is carried widely by public TV stations, but rarely in the best kiddie time slots before and after school, said Christopher Cerf, co-executive producer for Sirius Thinking, WGBH’s New York-based production partner for the series.

PBS’s evaluation will look beyond Nielsen ratings, Myatt said, to cumulative viewing in educational and day care settings. The network’s no-vote last year was "based on the cost of the show and the resources currently at hand. That predates all of our current business planning."

Four seasons of Between the Lions have cost more than $40 million, a hefty price tag for 70 episodes. PBS and CPB invested $6.5 million in Ready to Learn funding and $6.5 million of their own programming monies in the series, according to Jeanne Hopkins, a WGBH spokeswoman. Another $10 million came from WGBH, $9 million from five foundation sponsors, and $12 million from licensing and back-end revenues.

"We’ve been working on ways to change the format to make it less expensive," Cerf said.

"Very few shows are as well thought-through and as well done as Between the Lions, and the amount of resources that have been spent on developing this show are only partially being capitalized at this point," said Michael Levine, a senior fellow at Yale University’s Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy. Levine was deputy chairman of the Carnegie Corp., a major foundation that backed the series. A stronger, more coordinated outreach effort could build on policymakers’ interest in addressing the literacy gap among young children, he said.

"This is helping to achieve the administration’s goal of having all children reading by the third grade," said Naomi Karp, director of the Department of Education office that administers RTL. How PBS spends its next round of RTL funding won’t be determined until September, the beginning of the next RTL grant year.

"When they get the new money we will discuss how they will spend it, and until then they can’t make any commitments to anybody about anything," she said. "There will be some activities for Between the Lions almost positively, for a multitude of reasons."

The federal budget approved by Congress late last year boosted RTL funding by more than a third to $22 million. PBS manages those monies through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Education.

To Current's home page
Earlier news: Profile of Between the Lions, 2000.
Earlier news: Kleeman report to PBS recommends greater emphasis on curriculum for PBS Kids shows.
Outside link: Between the Lions website.

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