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CPB bets millions on projects to teach teens history, civics

Originally published in Current, July 9, 2007
By Jeremy Egner

CPB is spending millions to fund reality TV shows, video games, competitions and other interactive teaching tools designed to help middle- and high-school students investigate America’s past, interact with founders of the republic and follow a bill’s path to enactment through Capitol Hill’s sausage factory.

The corporation last week announced the first seven grantees of its American History and Civics Initiative. The $20 million project, launched in 2005, aims to create educational projects that somehow reach the iPod-equipped, PlayStation-addicted inheritors of American democracy.

“We’re going to go get ’em where they are,” says Greg Diefenbach, CPB senior v.p. for TV programming. “And where they are is on all these different platforms.”

Kids have historically abandoned public TV once they outgrow its children’s shows and the system has never courted the teen audience with much success. But CPB decided it should try again based on “a deck of data,” Diefenbach says. The objective: improving older students’ history and civics knowledge, which is spotty at best.

In addition, the pricey project will help the system by fueling experiments involving alternate platforms, Diefenbach says.
This first group of grants, which range from $400,000 to $900,000 each — specific figures weren’t available — will fund research, development and prototyping for seven multiplatform projects. As prototypes emerge, CPB will weed out weaker proposals and fund production of two, three or four projects about a year from now. Most are planned to go public in 2009. CPB may still seed R&D and prototypes for a few more concepts, Diefenbach says.

The seven groups whose proposals entered the semifinals last week typically include public TV stations that partner with educational nonprofits, commercial videogame developers and content companies.

The partners can divide responsibilities however they want, Diefenbach says, but he advises pubcasters to tap into existing relationships with local educators. Each group will be required to hire a research firm to test its product’s effectiveness as a teaching tool.

The corporation will also favor projects that can sustain themselves financially, such as educational games that can charge fees for usage. Revenue guidelines are still being finalized, Diefenbach says.

All of the projects are required to include a TV component, though it remains to be seen how many of the resulting productions will appear on PBS or, Diefenbach says. The network has been involved in planning, but relevant execs weren’t available for comment at Current’s deadline.

CPB hired Boston’s WGBH to oversee the initiative. Its interactive department will shepherd the various projects through the prototyping phase, managing schedules and budgets, offering problem-solving help as needed, and evaluating educational effectiveness, says Ron LaRussa, director of WGBH Interactive. For broadcasts, WGBH will also manage stations relations and promotion.

Like America at a Crossroads, which received a mostly favorable reception when it finally debuted this spring (Current, April 23), the American History and Civics Initiative emerged during CPB’s stormy Kenneth Tomlinson period.
Critics wondered at the time if the corporation aimed to fund patriotic propaganda. PubTV programmers were more concerned about the millions diverted, in their view, from bolstering the primetime schedule. Two years later, that stance hasn’t changed for some.

“I’m even more convinced that trying to reach an audience that we have tried time and time again to reach — and failed time and again to reach — is a waste of money,” Garry Denny, director of programming for Wisconsin Public Television, said last week. Denny outlined the Public Television Programmers Association concerns about the civics initiative in a May 2005 Current commentary when he was the group’s board president.

While he acknowledges the value of experimenting with alternative platforms, Denny says he thinks the money would be better spent on the primetime schedule. However, CPB’s Diefenbach notes, the corporation is already “plowing a lot of money” into the public TV schedule.

The state of student history and civics education is such that CPB thinks “it’s worth the risk and effort to use public broadcasting’s assets to make a positive impact in an area where it’s badly needed,” he says.

CPB received 88 proposals, including pitches from more than 40 public TV stations.

The first projects to get R&D funds are:

Web page posted July 9, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee


Serious games: Advocates are game to try for a role in education and public media.

CPB's other big pubTV project of recent years, the post-9/11 doc series America at a Crossroads, debuted in April 2007.

Independent Television Service also has experimented with games, including the alternate reality World Without Oil, which was online for a month in May 2007.


CPB's July 2007 grants press release.

CPB request for proposals and related documents about the History and Civics Initiative.

Two weeks earlier the U.S. Department of Education gave $122 million to public school systems to improve the teaching of U.S. history.

In Virtual Congress, from Indiana University and WTIU, students will play roles as they do in multiplayer online adventures, a planner says, "Though the characters in those games are typically warriors, rogues, or trolls, rather than Members of Congress."

USC unit describes the serious game Darfur Is Dying.




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