Serious children's TV programs -- a tiny, tiny drop in the bucket

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Joel Heller has an unusual job in network television. He is executive producer of a program that has attained only a 4.5 rating, about half the popularity of its Saturday competitor - cartoons.

He is also his news organization's director of children's broadcasts, a field which, at its best, as he says, ''is a tiny, tiny drop in the bucket'' in how television influences kids.

What motivates this veteran CBS News executive to go on? And what motivates his network to let him?

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Mr. Heller's centerpiece program on Saturday afternoons, ''30 Minutes,'' is viewed in 4 million homes by some 5 million young people, he estimates.

Modeled on CBS's adult program, ''60 Minutes,'' the children's show follows a Saturday morning of cartoons. These cartoons, though, are interrupted every half hour by ten 2 1/2-minute ''In the News'' reports, also Mr. Heller's work, which draw closer to 8 million viewers.

These short ''In the News'' segments are rewritten versions of reports seen during the preceding week on CBS's evening news.

The broader program, ''30 Minutes,'' focuses in more depth on topics ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to drug abuse and young rodeo stars. Regular CBS newscasters, including Christopher Glenn and Betty Anne Bowser, do the reporting.

''I am not trying to be an educator,'' Mr. Heller says. ''Education is done in the school or by parents. Our job is to process information that is going on in the world for television and to try to make it understandable to young people.

''You can have a lot of fun doing that, if you're curious, like we are,'' Mr. Heller reports about himself and his staff. ''We all wear various hats. Many of us are parents . . . and I for one, am appalled by things which pass themselves off as children's programming which are an insult to the human race.'' Then he remarks, ''Why, you can talk to kids just like you talk to anybody.''

Mr. Heller is also concerned about so-called quality programs. He is even willing to take on the popular ''Sesame Street.'' He explains: '' 'Sesame Street' has done something which I'm afraid we're going to live with for the rest of our lives. It has successfully exploited the one- to two-minute form:

'' 'If you don't like it, wait a second and we'll have another story for you.' ''

How to help youngsters develop any staying power or to learn to concentrate for long periods of time - necessary for teaching such subjects as democracy - is undercut by the ever-entertaining, ever-changeable TV camera.

He's proud of his own network for being willing to take a loss on the serious children's public affairs programming while counting on profits from other programming.

One philosophical note, or maybe the bottom line as Mr. Heller sees it. He points out: ''What any network does at any particular time is a reflection of who's in charge of programming and what the profit picture is at that time.''

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