BOSTON — The CityKids execute an intricate series of dance steps as they sing "Take a moment to live, take a moment to give, take a moment to understand...." Fresh and talented, this multicultural group is promoting communication between parents and children with "Take a Moment," a half-hour program airing June 8 on 29 cable stations.
The show will kick off a week-long media event called "Tune In to Kids and Family II." It was so successful last year that 75 cable stations are participating this time, compared with 25 in 1997. In an attempt to inform parents about the programs available to children, they will air child- and teen-oriented programming during prime time. The project also aims to encourage more discriminating viewing. In its own modest way "Take a Moment," hosted by Donald Faison ("Clueless") and Melissa Joan Hart ("Sabrina, the Teenage Witch"), is also promoting what many industry experts call "media literacy."
There was a time, not so long ago, when media pundits espoused turning off the TV, advising families to read or play games together. Some still do, and some families manage to keep the tube in check. But many other experts have given up preaching abstinence - television culture is just too pervasive. The
TV is on 60 hours a week in the average American household with kids. And cable or satellite connections can supply homes with 2,000 hours of programming each week.
Many studies point to a correlation between violent, antisocial, or just plain rude behavior at school and too much television at home.
"When a kid tells a teacher 'Eat my shorts,' we know he got it from Bart Simpson," says Mary Larson, associate professor of communications at the University of Northern Illinois. But kids have worse role models than Bart.
Children often watch TV unsupervised. And even the most conscientious parents can't always keep track of what is watched at friends' homes. What to do? For starters, parents, teachers, child advocates, and media critics have voiced concerns - loudly and persistently about the quality of programs. And a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study shows that 54 percent of parents with kids aged 2 to 17 use the TV rating system.
The cable TV industry has been increasingly responsive to parental concerns. Why cable? It's simply good business. According to Decker Anstrom, president of The National Cable Television Association (NCTA), "more than 80 percent of all children's programming is on cable. Most of the other 20 percent is PBS. We hear from families who say 'We want quality educational programming we can watch together.'
"Families want a safe place for their kids, and a lot of cable networks are responding," says Mr. Anstrom. "For example, Nickelodeon and public television's Children's Television Network recently joined forces to produce 'Noggin,' another 24-hour, educational television network for children." This is enlightened self-interest, he says.
Nickelodeon, for example, keeps commercials to a minimum, doesn't allow gratuitous violence in ads, and kid-tests all shows. "We think of Nick as a playground - a place where parents can feel comfortable letting their children play - where kids can be kids," says president Herb Scannell.
But "safe" TV is not enough, say experts like Dr. Larson and Dr. Janet Schiff, who trains teachers in media literacy at Columbia Teacher's College. Dr. Schiff points out that cartoon violence is just as harmful as other kinds because "Young children still model after cartoon behavior."
What is really needed in addition to more and better programming, say experts from the TV industry, academia, and child-advocacy groups, is media literacy taught in the schools and reinforced at home.
"We teach high school and college kids all kinds of things," says Anstrom, "but not about the thing that is most influential. We need better and smarter viewers."
And we need them sooner, according to Larson and Schiff, who say media literacy should begin in the primary grades. Many teachers resist the idea because it seems frivolous. But cable is already in the classroom. And PBS led the way 30 years ago, according to Alice Cahn, director, children's programming, with instructional workshops for teachers in how to use curriculum-oriented programming.
"We need to change kids' expectations, ask their opinions, teach them to make predictions about what is going to happen," Ms. Cahn says."This can be done with very young children."
Many experts agree that the most important issue is to help young children see that TV is not real. "When you read to them, images are in their heads, says Helen Liebowitz of the National PTA. "But when they watch TV, images are coming into your home that look very real.
"The whole industry needs to be more responsible," adds Ms. Liebowitz. "The airwaves belong to the public. And the public has to have some measure of control."