Media Circus: With "education" like this, who needs infomercials?

Thanks to the new FCC guidelines mandating more educational TV, kids have learned essential facts -- like the NBA is really cool and always to watch for spies when leaving the house.

Published October 2, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

It may be the least edifying lesson of the budding school year. Starting in September, under new Federal Communications Commission guidelines, TV stations are supposed to be airing three hours of "educational or informational" programming each week, at some reasonable time of day. And you know what, kids? A lot of the stuff the networks have programmed to fulfill their stations' obligations has the pedagogical value of one of those paper place mats at a pancake house. Of course, this has nothing, nothing at all, to do with the FCC's decision to leave it up to broadcasters themselves to decide what goes on the curriculum.

NBC might as well not have bothered with "T-NBC," a chintzy Saturday-morning lineup of live-action shows aimed at adolescents, including "Saved by the Bell," "Hang Time" and "City Guys" -- educational, one must suppose for lack of other evidence, because they're set in high schools. That's not to leave out "NBA Inside Stuff," which continues to teach viewers that the NBA is really, really cool. The other networks just barely pick up the slack. While the squiggly animation of ABC's "Science Court" might send some youngsters reaching for their Ritalin, amazingly it's the only new offering that has solid educational content -- and, as a bonus, it's even funny.

"Sports Illustrated for Kids," on CBS, wraps clunky social lessons in irresistible packages, such as an interview with NBA basketball player Chris Webber's dad explaining that he stood by his son after his bonehead timeout cost his team a chance to win in the NCAA finals because -- now listen carefully, kids -- "Chris took responsibility for his actions." CBS's "Wheel 2000," a revamp of the evergreen game show "Wheel of Fortune," takes the letter-but-not-the-spirit of the law tack. The show offers many useful lessons, such as that a computer generated co-host named "Cyber Lucy," whose legs are four times as long as her torso, can teach girls to be pretty accessories just as well as Vanna White can.

Later in the morning, "The Weird Al Show" -- imagine, if you will, "Pee-wee's Playhouse" relocated to Mineola, Long Island -- shows us how big a joke the FCC rules really are. "When you're out in public, always check to make sure no spies are following you," intones a narrator of a reappropriated '50s educational film. "And if there are spiders on you, roll, roll on the ground. Spiders are icky." Educational? No, yes, maybe and whatever.

Much effort on the part of our legislators brought us to this pretty pass. Enacted by Congress in 1990, the Children's Television Act became law without the signature of President Bush, who whined that legislation limiting commercials during kids' shows, prohibiting infomercials for toys and calling for a commitment to educational programming would compromise broadcasters' First Amendment rights. It was one of those doozies of the era, like Reagan's insistence that trees cause pollution. Given the chance, Congress knew better than to pass up an opportunity to score easy points with parents.

In the years since children's TV was deregulated wholesale in 1983, cable has come into its own, with the luxury to take risks the networks and established syndicators didn't think they could afford. The results are obvious in any week's Nielsen's: Nickelodeon consistently ranks at the top of the cable ratings. The year-old "Blue's Clues," Nick's sublime quiz show for preschoolers, rocketed into the top 10 -- despite the fact that each week's episode airs for five days in a row, just the way 3-year-olds like it. My statistical sample of one indicates that 6-year-olds watch the Discovery Channel the way the White House tuned into CNN during the Gulf War. "Edutainment" CD-ROMs like "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" -- which was so popular it inspired a long-running TV version on PBS -- have, like the kid-friendly cable offerings, seized the minds of the privileged minority of children who have nice computers at home and moms and dads who can afford a lot of high-tech "educational" toys.

Educational TV is a way for networks to convince advertisers they're reaching the same high-status audience. The problem is you can't expect children to soak up the educational programs and then filter out the commercials that fill a third of every hour. Disney-owned ABC has been particularly shameless in its advertising abuse, airing a barrage of commercials for the video release of "Cinderella" in the middle of "101 Dalmatians" and "Winnie the Pooh" broadcasts. Cyber Lucy may be on hand to provide factoids about the solutions to the Wheel 2000 puzzles -- "See, most people think spa-ghetti came from Italy, right? But it actually originated in Chi-na, and was brought to Italy by Marco Polo, who traveled there on one of his many journeys as a world explorer!" she informs her young viewers. But Lucy, the shadow of the valley girl of death, is also the one designated to describe "fabulous prizes," like "a Jeep boombox with CD, cassette and AM-FM radio!" Let's see if I got this straight ... Marco Polo brought a box of spaghetti back to his Jeep ... oh, never mind.

Advocates for educational TV are counting on "Sesame Street" as a model, which it is by default. (Presumably someone's noticed it isn't bad for product licensing, either, with a billion dollars in sales each year.) But as ill-equipped as commercial television is to deliver the same goods, things aren't so simple even when Mattel doesn't own the hour. Who decides what messages to beam into impressionable brains? Should it be William Bennett, whose "Book of Virtues" was translated not long ago into a PBS show that, by implication, teaches the values "Sesame Street" doesn't? (Guess which program features African-American girls extolling the joys of hard work.) The credits of the new Saturday morning shows are filled with more letters than a box of Alpha-Bits, representing the credentials of educational consultants who've decided they have a calling to a higher place than the classroom. Let's hope they know what they're doing.

By Alyssa Katz

Alyssa Katz is television critic for the Nation.

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