When PBS surveyed parents of preschoolers to find out what bugs them about children's television, it wasn't the commercials for fatty foods. No. 1 on their list was something a little more touchy-feely.
“We kept hearing from parents that positive, real-adult role models are missing from kids TV today,” explains Lesli Rotenberg, senior VP of PBS Kids Next Generation Media, a PBS initiative that, over five years, will explore how to expand its content to new-media outlets.
PBS listened and broke new ground on its preschool block in September, presenting “Miss Lori,” a live host who is there to guide kids through the schedule. (She's Lori Holton Nash; see Q&A below.)
That's such a new idea it's positively old. In the early days of television, it was common for stations to have hosts who hawked toys and other goodies in between the cartoons And of course, on PBS, there was gentle Mr. Rogers, who died in 2003.
“So much of kids TV is cartoons,” Rotenberg says. “Parents are missing adults that kids can learn from and who can model good behavior that will help kids know what will help them become good citizens in their community. Parents are concerned with how they can help their children succeed in school and succeed in life,” she adds. “They want to be an educational partner, but they want resources.”
In a Roper Public Opinion Poll of 1,001 parents conducted over the summer for PBS and the Parent Teacher Association, parents said they are most concerned about safety. That was followed by concerns about their kids' keeping up-to-date with technology, then academic performance, the influence of advertising, and then nutrition.
PBS, so deeply involved in children's television, pays attention. “We take a lot of cues from the American public,” says Rotenberg. “But there is another layer, which is academic advisors, whom we use with all our programs. We will refer to them specifically for the type of curriculum that is age-appropriate for each program.”
Parents and advisors prompted PBS to expand into new media. PBS' Roper research found that 70% of parents feel that their kids will fall behind if they aren't adept at using new media.
For children 2-5
Similar research contributed to the development of PBS Kids Sprout, a multimedia outlet that includes a digital network geared to kids 2-5 that has been on the air for a year. PBS developed Sprout in partnership with Sesame Workshop, Comcast, and Barney producer HIT Entertainment.
“We look at a number of sources,” explains Sandy Wax, president of PBS Kids Sprout. “We talk to consumers regularly in focus groups. We have a number of educational consultants and childhood-development experts. And we also look at what the dialog is among parents and in the media.”
Media coverage of childhood obesity was in part responsible for Sprout Diner, animated shorts that focus on healthy habits and nutritious food.
Sometimes, kids fool Sprout, too. Wax notes a Welsh series that recently premiered called Fireman Sam, which offers tips on fire safety and social responsibilities. Sprout originally put the show on its video-on-demand (VOD) service, where Wax says it has logged 2.3 million views since January.
“Fireman Sam was a show we weren't sure would be successful on our [traditional] network because it wasn't well-known in the U.S.,” Wax says. “We put it on our VOD offering at launch, and it generated some real traction. Then we put it on Sprout so [more] people could watch it.”