Not long ago, if families here wanted to partake of the children's offerings on public television, they could turn to Washington-area public TV, or they were pretty much out of luck. No longer.
With the launch of its "Children's Channel" yesterday, Maryland Public Television has one of the more extensive schedules for kids' shows among public broadcasters. MPT, which serves 1 million households from southern Pennsylvania to northern Virginia, doubled children's programming to 40 hours a week. The station is packaging its line-up with a "Vid Kid Club" to attract new member families and provide brief educational messages between shows. The station also has raised money to train up to 600 day-care providers, mostly in poor communities, on how to use TV better as an educational tool, not just as an electronic baby-sitter.
This long-time-coming initiative is due to the convergence of several factors.
The State Department of Education, which helps fund MPT, no longer is requiring the station to clutter its daytime grid with instructional TV for school use. With video-cassette recorders so prevalent, it's just as easy now for schools to tape instructional shows aired in the pre-dawn and show them at their discretion during the day.
Public television has also become home to an increasing array of children's programs, some of which have become more popular than the violent, condescending schlock that typically airs on the commercial stations. Meanwhile, Congress is feeling increased pressure from a public disgruntled by the wasteland that TV has become, particularly as it relates to young people.
Devoting mornings to shows for pre-schoolers and afternoons to broadcasts aimed at older children should reap benefits for MPT, too. A recent promotion tied to the toddler mega-star character "Barney" brought in as many pledges in a morning -- $40,000 -- as the station often gets in a whole day. Station executives should have deduced long ago that the way to many families' hearts (and wallets) is through their kids.
If MPT prospers while serving up generous portions of healthier mind-food for kids, fine. For too long, parents had to turn somewhere else -- or nowhere at all -- for children's television. Almost overnight, MPT has turned a desert into a garden.