Public television's biggest star visited Baltimore yesterday for an announcement about some of its smallest pieces of programming.
Barney, the purple dinosaur of "Barney & Friends," came for the first time to the Owings Mills studio of Maryland Public Television in a visit transmitted via fiber optic technology to kindergarten kids at two area schools.
The occasion? An announcement that beginning June 5, the gaps between shows in MPT's seven daily hours of "Children's Channel" programming will be filled with short, education-oriented spots on subjects ranging from nutrition to resolving conflicts without fighting.
Officials said the Maryland public broadcasting outlet will be joining the PBS Ready to Learn program begun last summer in 11 cities.
The spots in the PBS project feature whimsical animated characters called the P-Pals, named after the PBS logo, as well as comedian Paula Poundstone.
MPT will also produce its own short spots featuring Bob "the Vid Tech" Heck, host of MPT's Vidkid Club, to emphasize MPT's established identity. MPT launched its own Children's Channel expansion two years ago.
The project also includes distribution of PTV Families, a quarterly magazine available free at local libraries. (Viewers can also call MPT at  581-4039.)
"It's not flashy . . . but we're making a difference," said Alice Cahn, PBS' director of children's programming.
In style, the spots look a lot like commercials, but without the product pitch.
For example, one segment shows footage of an elephant. "What do you do when you get mad?" an announcer asks, and the elephant whacks its trunk. But the voice says that's wrong. Instead, you should try to use words to talk out problems.
MPT President Raymond K.K. Ho and David Nevins, newly named chairman of the MPT Commission, emphasized that the goal of such programming is to "go beyond the television screen" with programming that supports educational goals.
But Barney was yesterday's star, as MPT used the nasal-voiced dino's visit to exercise its expanding ability to link TV studios with classrooms.
Kindergarten students from Hillendale Elementary School in Baltimore County and Lexington Terrace Elementary in the city fidgeted for 30 minutes at remote sites as officials made their announcements. Students from Timber Grove Elementary in Owings Mills did the same in the MPT long-distance classroom conference center.
But Barney's arrival perked them up, as he sang songs, posed for pictures and answered questions: What's his favorite animal? "Human beings!"