In the past few years, Maryland Public Television has evolved from an Ice Age for children's TV into a habitat where purple dinosaurs thrive.
Barney, the tyrannosaur character that is an icon for the '90s pre-school set, helped MPT officials roll out their latest children's programming initiative this spring. Last month, MPT launched "Ready To Learn," a series of short segments between programs to impart lessons to children on topics such as conflict resolution. The feature, which has been used on other public TV stations, augments several other child-oriented initiatives MPT has added in recent years -- an increased line-up of shows for youngsters, training for day-care providers, interactive satellite link-ups between classrooms and its own productions for national distribution.
Several years ago, Maryland Public Television's offerings for children was embarrassingly thin. But MPT President Raymond K.K. Ho realized the shortcoming and acted to turn children's programming into a force for the station. The number of households watching MPT weekday mornings when children's shows are aired has nearly tripled in three years, from 63,000 to 169,000.
A person's brain develops at its greatest rate in the first five years of life. That makes it all the more alarming that the average child spends 4,000 hours in front of a television by age 5 -- 27 hours a week. Too often, nothing shapes a toddler's brain so much as the square box with the bright lights. Concerns about the media's effect on children are magnified; witness the reaction to Sen. Bob Dole's speech on cultural depravity.
It's not just the nature of what's on the screen, but how much time children are spending with it. A heavy diet of TV for kids is unhealthy -- public, private, educational or not. Television is among this century's most powerful inventions, and yet it is a passive medium, incapable of fostering imaginary play, interpersonal skills and physical development in children. We applaud MPT for strengthening its relationship with Maryland families. (A recent study said that 4-year-olds who watched PBS were better prepared for school.) But anyone who believes they can now safely let MPT or any network essentially raise their young for hours on end must believe in purple dinosaurs, too.