Listeners & viewers

The children's audiences
When kids go to school, most leave PBS behind

Tots TV puppet characters

Thomas the Tank Engine

Britt Allcroft (Thomas) Ltd.

Originally published in Current, Dec. 16, 1996

By Karen Everhart Bedford

My 18-month-old son recently discovered television, and his unrelenting enthusiasm for it is beyond belief.

Every morning during breakfast, just as my mental state is up-shifting from groggy to harried, Zane straightens up in his high chair, looks directly at me and says, "Mommy? Thomas! Tiny!"

Thomas is the cheeky but diligent little locomotive featured on Shining Time Station; Tiny is the "youngest" puppet on the new PBS show Tots TV. Zane's new-found obsession with these characters got me wondering about how kids grow up with television, and what they get from it at various developmental stages.

A self-doubting, first-time parent, I also worried: what happens when he begins choosing TV shows himself, and his choices veer from the safe and worthy fare that I'm so comfortable with?

Preschoolers seek "mastery"

Psychologists and children's TV researchers say I don't have to worry about this for several more years.

"Before grade school, parents are still pretty much the gatekeeper of what their children are watching," notes Michael Cohen, a principal of Arc Consultants, a television research firm. "This is general wisdom and kind of cliche, but I do a lot of research on this and I think it's true."

Gordon Berry, a professor specializing in children's television at UCLA, notes that even if preschoolers could control the TV set, "they would opt for the types of programs that are on public TV. By definition, the programs they would want to see are on PBS."

"They would opt for those programs because they identify with them, they know the form and structure, they know the songs and this empowers them," he adds. Moreover, characters such as Barney, Big Bird and Mr. Rogers "speak to them."

Around age two-and-a-half, "viewing really takes off and kids start to have preferences for multiple programs," according to Dan Anderson of the University of Massachusetts. Anderson notes that "a huge proportion" of television viewing for preschoolers is from videotapes. This allows for "viewing of a different sort"--watching things over and over again.

Scientists haven't established exactly why young children like to watch shows repeatedly, he says, but a widely held belief is that it's "mastery-driven." In other words, repetitive viewing allows them to develop an understanding of the material.

Around age four, children want to watch programs that tell stories. This is one of the reasons that in recent years Sesame Street began building one continuous storyline through each episode, according to Josephine Holz, head of research for Children's Television Workshop. The change had two purposes, she said: to attract older kids to the program, and to make the series more coherent and less fragmented.

Schoolchildren turn to Nick because they "sense that shows are not being made for their parents or their parents' approval," says Anderson. "They're being made for them."

Moving on from the Neighborhood

The older preschool child's interest in dramatic stories feeds into the next big shift in television viewing habits, which occurs about the time that children enter elementary school.

"The schoolchild is no longer primarily concerned with the security provided by his family," comments Fred Rogers, star of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and the calm and wise grandfather of children's television. "A schoolchild may want to be recognized for her competence, for what she can do."

"In the school years, when children go on from the Neighborhood to other things, they're much more interested to know what things are, how they work, what they're for, how they're made and where they come from. In those years, make-believe isn't any longer hit-or-miss with reality."

School-age children also are "interested in how to fit in with their peers," according to CTW's Holz. "They're concerned with handling social situations, and they like sitcoms for that reason."

Children aged 5-9 have eclectic tastes in television viewing, says Anderson. They watch "an awful lot" of children's programming, including preschool shows that they wouldn't confess to watching among their peers, and enjoy primetime, family programming.

Just as the preschool audience has its own subsets of older and younger children, experts say there are segments within the school-age audience.

From an educational and developmental perspective, it's a myth that the 6-11 age group measured by Nielsen is a unified viewing block, according to Arc's Cohen. By the time kids hit ages 10-12, they are "aspirationally teenagers." They're heavily into sitcoms along the lines of Married with Children. "That is the beginning of whole new group of kids."

Preadolescents aged 12 or 13 "don't want to go to PG-rated movies anymore," notes Alvin Poussaint, director of the media center at the Judge Baker Center for Children and an adviser to Bill Cosby. "There's a societal and cultural precociousness that's accelerated--in fact, induced--by the media." This feeds into adolescents' natural drive to attach themselves to peer groups, which often define themselves by what they watch on television.

By the time children reach adolescence, their television viewing drops, "mostly because of socializing," comments Anderson. "They're going out in the evenings, and TV watching is focussed on relatively few programs."

Moreover, teens "don't want to watch anything they think is made for them," says Kate Taylor, director of children's programming for WGBH, Boston. They watch Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place and love Oprah. "They'll watch any of the sensational talk shows. They feel like this is where they get their reality."

Graduation from PBS

During their school-age years, children traditionally "graduate" from PBS and turn to other outlets for entertainment programming. Nickelodeon, Fox, Warner Brothers and the Cartoon Network are competing fiercely for their eyeballs.

"Children identify things that they watched early on as being for children," comments Poussaint. Part of their "emancipation from being a little kid and becoming a big kid is to put that away."

He recalls a focus-group session that tested children's reactions to a potential new series, Willoughby's Wonders. One of the school-aged participants asked what channel the show would be on. When told it was PBS, the child exclaimed, "Ugh! Nobody watches PBS."

Graduation from PBS is a "complex phenomenon," admits Cohen. "Up to a certain age, parents are concerned about the quality and quantity of what their kids watch, but eventually they throw up their hands." Instead, they focus on regulating how much TV their children watch.

There's also the lure of the commercial channels, most notably Nickelodeon, which has been the big beneficiary of a 100 percent surge in children's viewing of cable TV this year.

"The most brilliant player is Nickelodeon," says Cohen. "They've created really compelling new stuff with an edge."

"Nickelodeon has been successful because they've been absolutely creative in terms of the way they've developed programs and the way they've respected children," comments Berry.

Schoolchildren turn to Nick because they "sense that shows are not being made for their parents or their parents' approval," adds Anderson. "They're being made for them."

PBS historically hasn't been able to hold on to school-aged viewers for very long. Ground-breaking series as Ghostwriter, which promoted literacy skills, and Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, a geography game show, caught on with kids, but weren't part of a larger, sustained effort to serve that audience.

"Ghostwriter got decent ratings, but without other shows surrounding it for the same age group, it's hard to keep a show going," says Holz.

Bill Nye the Science Guy "It was hard for kid to graduate [from preschool shows] and stay with PBS because there wasn't enough there," says Arc's Cohen. PBS now is "doing a brilliant at job trying to be a place for school-aged kids."

The network now offers a sizable block of programs for early school-age kids: Bill Nye the Science Guy, Kratts' Creatures, Magic School Bus, Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego and Wishbone. Early in 1996, it also developed "The Game," a package of station-break materials that enable stations to create a special "school-age" environment around the programs. About 31 stations are now using it.

"I don't think it's inevitable that kids will grow away from public TV's programming," says Alice Cahn, director of children's programming for PBS. Kids who watched PBS as preschoolers have such a strong association of public TV with babyhood that PBS has a "challenge to create a different enough environment in dayparts that are convenient for them to watch."

Public TV is only at the beginning of this process, she says. "It'll take time for kids to find the shows. It'll take time for stations to find the best ways to use the series." She anticipates a full-scale assessment of the block's effectiveness next spring.

Taylor predicts that attracting school kids back to PBS will be a "big job."

"There's a lot of resistance to carrying that many older-kids' shows. A lot of stations are not airing the entire block," she says. "I can understand why it's tempting for them not to--they're going to get bigger numbers with shows for younger kids, because they're a captive audience."

Nevertheless, experts outside public television say PBS's chances for success are quite high. New series such as Wishbone and Magic School Bus are "examples of a very alive and well PBS," commented Geraldine Laybourne in an interview following the White House summit on children's TV this summer. Laybourne created Nickelodeon's successful formula before joining Disney as head of Disney's cable operations.

"If PBS can begin the creative revolution in preschool programming, they can also make the shift to early school-aged children and adolescents," says Berry. "There's no reason why, given a commitment to do so, they could not make this leap. They have all of the energy and know-how to do that."


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