The recent success of LeVar Burton's Kickstarter campaign, which raised more than $5 million to bring back the classic PBS show "Reading Rainbow," illustrates just how hungry Americans are for high-quality educational programming. I am wowed by the impact of crowdsourcing, but I am also worried that Congress will take this as a sign that it no longer needs to invest federal dollars into educational children's television.
Federal funding has set up the infrastructure for a truly impressive Public Broadcasting Service and programming that would never otherwise have gained a foothold if left to the vagaries of the marketplace economy. Without the support of the American people, long-running series like "Sesame Street" might not have reached generation upon generation of children. Programs that teach literature ("Wishbone") or science ("Bill Nye the Science Guy") or computer literacy ("Cyberchase") might never have found their audience. The evolution of government-supported educational media for children reflects not only imagination (Peg+Cat), but also serious research on what works and what doesn't for kids' TV created with learning — not selling — as the primary outcome.
1. Public television is free, and cable television is expensive.
A reasonable question might be: Why do we need federal funding to support educational content on broadcast TV when there are whole cable channels specifically devoted to children? Well, 10 percent of U.S. homes have only broadcast TV. And these broadcast-only homes, according to Nielsen research, are significantly poorer than the rest: The median household income for families with cable or satellite is almost twice that of families with only broadcast TV. While there are examples of high-quality programs on children's channels like Nickelodeon ("Dora the Explorer") and the Disney Channel ("Doc McStuffins"), they are the exception rather than the rule. The goal of their companies is to make money, not educate children (and I don't have a problem with that). But neither of these channels does the kind of research that is essential to understanding how their lessons are being received, whether they are making a difference in children's cognitive growth and, most importantly, whether they are reaching those children who can benefit most because they have the fewest resources.
2. The formula that works for the "marketplace" economy does not work for children's educational television.
PBS shows aren't designed to capture a huge audience. To be educationally successful, curriculum-based shows must be targeted to a narrow developmental age or stage. That's why we see so many shows on commercial stations like Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel taking a different approach and teaching "prosocial" lessons — for example, the importance of being a good friend or the value of honesty. These shows need to appeal to a huge swath of the child audience (and therefore advertisers), but let's be real: Kids have already learned these so-called lessons. Educationally driven shows aren't designed with obvious licensing and merchandizing opportunities. Funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS and the local public stations that make excellent children's shows (such as WGBH in Boston) gives them greater freedom to create formats that are pedagogically sound, rather than commercially oriented.
3. The quality of educational television on stations that are mandated by law to provide educational content for children is dismal.
Although Congress passed the Children's Television Act in 1990 and the Federal Communications Commission established clear guidelines spelling out exactly what kind of programming would count as "core" educational content (with a minimum of three hours per week), our studies at the Annenberg Public Policy Center reveal that many of the so-called E/I shows on broadcast TV are of dubious educational value. The network that stands above the rest in quality and educational value? PBS, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona.
4. The research is clear: television shows that are designed to be beneficial really are beneficial, particularly for children with fewer educational opportunities in the home and community.
A landmark 2001 study conducted by Daniel Anderson and colleagues tracked children's television viewing and academic success over 10 years. They found that children who watched educational programming like that found on PBS (at that time, "Barney & Friends," "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and "Sesame Street") arrived at school more ready to learn. The advantage they received from exposure to educational fare during preschool years was still evident when the researchers re-contacted these children as high-schoolers. Controlling for the variables we know would affect adolescent academic success (including parent education, home environment and family income), child viewing of educational TV still predicted higher grades, reading more books and greater creativity.
5. What's good for children who watch PBS can be good even for those who don't.
Public broadcasting has served as a kind of Petri dish of ideas that commercial broadcasters and channels have appropriated — once they see that it works. Angela Santomero, creator of the Nickelodeon series "Blue's Clues," has said that "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" inspired her to create a host who would talk directly to children and invite them to respond because she saw that it worked for Fred Rogers. Other groundbreaking shows like "Bill Nye" and "The Magic School Bus" showed that TV can teach complex concepts (in fact, both of these shows found homes in syndication on commercial channels). PBS raises the bar, and families across the nation expect more and better for their children.
Jordan, Ph.D., is associate director for Policy Implementation at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. She is also president-elect of the International Communication Association.