Channeling and guiding morality in children's television
New York — ''TV can be the enemy of children . . . or it can be a wonderful gift,'' says Nicholas B. Van Dyck, president of the National Council for Children and Television. ''Excessive and random TV viewing eat up enormous chunks of a young person's life. It robs children of important hours they need for active play, self-initiated daydreams, and even sleep.''
Mr. Van Dyck has been the prime mover responsible for getting Congress and President Reagan to declare March 13 through 19 National Children and Television Week. ''All your time is prime time,'' is the message Mr. Van Dyck and his organization are attempting to get across to young TV viewers through posters, classroom exercises, and publicity.
In an interview, Mr. Van Dyck explained that his organization, which was formed in 1977, includes a broad range of professional individuals concerned with television viewed by children. That includes educators, child advocates, programming executives and TV producers, writers, and directors.
''The council does not advocate any single point of view - we try to serve as a broker of information between the television industry and the world of children, their families, and schools,'' he says. ''We are not for anything other than the well-being of children. We just want to help meld the needs of children with the legitimate interests of the industry.''
The NCCT accomplishes this during the year through seminars that bring together child-development experts with TV writers, directors, producers, and program executives. The NCCT also runs workshops for teachers aimed at making television viewing a subject for classroom discussion.
This week the NCCT is sponsoring a series of events across the country. In Los Angeles, the organization is presenting its first Career Achievement Award to Muppets' creator Jim Henson. In Washington, the Sears, Roebuck Foundation is receiving NCCT's Corporate Achievement Award for its 15-year support of ''Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.''
Mr. Van Dyck, married for 25 years, is the father of four daughters. A former minister and teacher, he seems to regard his work as a mission rather than a mere job. He is especially interested in working with teachers.
''We have developed methods so teachers can use the kids' preoccupation with TV as an adjunct to teaching, reading, writing, history, social science,'' he says. ''We have been astounded by the results. Some of our most exciting results have come from children who have difficulty reading and writing. For the first time the classroom has given them a place where they can talk about something they all know about,'' he says.
Mr. Van Dyck's eyes light up when he talks about the NCCT Listeners Bureau. ''We take a TV show that is a big favorite with the kids, screen it one day, and then some wonderful teachers come in the next day and ask the kids what they thought about the show. In the back of the room are the producers, some of the stars, the writers. About halfway through they are introduced to the children, and the kids turn around and go at it, head to toe, with the very people who are responsible for the show. Several of the producers of big hits have said that those are some of the most rewarding sessions they have ever had.''
Mr. Van Dyck is reluctant to make negative comments about other organizations in the children's TV field, but he makes it clear that, while he admires Action For Children's Television (ACT), his organization is quite different. ''They are an advocacy organization; we are an educational group. ACT sees the answer to the problem largely through federal regulation. I think ACT must be recognized as the group that raised the national consciousness about children's TV as no other group in the country did. We should take off our hats to them on that.
''But as to lobbying in Washington as a strategy to improve children's TV, it's been my experience that the FCC and the FTC are not the organizations to get involved any more than necessary in children's TV. We work with the people who work with kids.''
Mr. Van Dyck interrupts the questions. ''All this calls to mind something I would like to tell you, an operating philosophy.
''We as a society need to care about our storytellers in at least the same way and with the same passion as societies from time immemorial have cared about the people who have arisen out of the group to be storytellers. We train our storytellers - they're our teachers. Our librarians are also storytellers because they channel a lot of interest - we send them to years of school. They have been cared for by the society around them because we realize that storytellers are crucial to the realization of any kind of worthwhile future. We become the stories that we pay attention to.
''But since 1950,'' he continues, ''a whole new thing has happened in history. All of a sudden, the dominant storyteller in our society is television, a storyteller not accountable to a community but to stockholders. Who is seeing to it that the people who tell our TV stories - the sitcoms, the action-adventure shows, the news documentaries - are schooled enough for the job? Who is seeing to it that they understand history, aesthetics, morality? These storytellers deserve our passionate concern to see to it that they understand as much as they can about the human condition and the hopes and aspirations of the people who are looking at them for the stories that will shape the future.
''Picture yourself as a lead writer on a team for a series. All the available statistics on crime and so forth are only peripherally interesting. What you really want to hear about is what kids and their parents think about themselves and the world in terms of relationships that go beyond the surface. So when we set up seminars for these creative people, it's with experts in child development, aesthetics, philosophy. The creative community wants to do good things.''
One of the major purposes of the National Children and Television Week is to help produce a generation of more selective TV viewers. Mr. Van Dyck likes to tell the story of an experiment by one of his colleagues on the council who asked his child to circle as many programs as he wanted to watch during the week on a weekly program guide. ''There were only two rules - everything circled had to be watched; nothing not circled could be watched. Within a week, the child was so annoyed that he couldn't do many things that came up in his life because he was committed to watch TV that the next time around the circles were much more selective. Interestingly enough, the programs chosen tended to be a little more worthwhile. The circling also cut out random viewing completely.
''That kind of self-conscious use of time is what we hope will be happening in schools throughout the United States this week and in all the months that follow. Now, there's a vision for you.''
If Nicholas Van Dyck could control the TV viewing of his children, which show in the early prime-time hours would he choose?
''I would never want to prescribe anything for another family. Parents and children must be allowed to make their own choices. The important thing is that they choose rather than turn on the TV set and watch anything. ''
I have a 13-year-old daughter, and we laugh together at many of the early prime-time shows. 'Happy Days' is one of them.
''I have learned to enjoy that show and shows like it as a wonderful pop-culture form. Of course, I don't expect from such shows what I expect from a series on PBS. It's just a half hour of laughing and giggling.''
''The most important thing is the amount of time we allot to such shows. That's what has to be kept under control. More selective viewing is the answer for everyone, adults and children.''