R-r-roll 'em! Kids hit TV screen with breakthrough programs

Next fall, squarely in prime time, viewers of public television are going to be treated to something a little different. Eight- to 13-year-old reporters will be grilling adults on subjects ranging from strip searching in American schools to child prostitution in the Philippines.

The show?

``Children's Express Television Magazine,'' which springs from the print news service of the same name. For 13 years Children's Express, based in New York with bureaus in other parts of the United States, has produced news stories from the perspective of preteen reporters and teen-age editors.

For a number of years, United Press International distributed the service. Now, Children's Express handles its own sales to about 40 subscribing newspapers.

The organization has accumulated a fair amount of journalistic experience. But ``it seems like you don't really exist until you're on TV,'' says its founder and executive director, Robert Clampitt, with a wry chuckle.

What viewers will get next fall is ``unlike anything else that's ever happened on TV,'' according to Mr. Clampitt. Child interviewers have a way of driving right to the point, he says.

``We all expect certain things of each other as adults - none of this exists for the child. Questions are likely to be much more fundamental and straightforward. It can produce very interesting journalism.''

Harry Moses, producer of the show, agrees. During 14 years at CBS, Mr. Moses produced more than 60 stories for ``60 Minutes'' and headed a special investigative unit for ``CBS Evening News.'' ``The kids are just wonderful,'' he says.

A pilot edition of ``Children's Express Television Magazine'' featured interviews with toy industry representatives at their huge annual trade fair.

One young reporter asked a stunned Hasbro employee why, if they make toys that glorify war, there shouldn't be toys that glorify prostitution or street violence, too?

A great question, says Moses, exulting. ``I didn't give him that question. I don't know where it came from.''

That's what the show is all about, he adds - ``it empowers kids.'' The youngsters have a strong sense of moral outrage, and ``we're allowing them to take this moral beacon and shine it on various stories.''

The commercial TV networks have dabbled in news shows for children in the past. But ``there's never been a show that hasn't been filtered through adults,'' Moses continues. ``There'll be no filters between our reporters and the audience. You won't see an adult on the screen, unless it's the one they're talking to.''

Public Broadcasting System is pioneering this uncharted territory. ``It's the most innovative thing we've come up with through the challenge grants,'' says Barry Chase, vice-president for news and public affairs. Grants were set up last year to stimulate new, ``breakthrough'' programming.

``It's a little bit of what `60 Minutes' gives you, but out of the mouth of babes,'' Mr. Chase says. When the show's reporting turns to issues that affect youngsters, there's a special candor that comes from kids talking to kids, he observes. ``I think we adults will have a lot to learn.''

He mentions the pilot show's round-table discussion of sexuality as an example of an honest exchange of views.

``You're not going to get that when you have an adult in the room,'' Chase comments.

About 90 percent of the subjects for Children's Express stories come from the teen-age editorial board, according to Clampitt.

The younger reporters contribute a few, as do adult advisers. Moses estimates that 80 percent of the subjects are adult fare. A show like ``60 Minutes'' might portray them as well.

Other subjects the show will deal with include profiles from racially tense sections of New York City, dial-a-porn, kids being committed to mental institutions, and AIDS.

The reporters don't really ``write'' stories, Clampitt points out. They work out questions after research and brainstorming with their editors, then tape the interviews.

The tapes are transcribed and rearranged by editors. No stylistic or even grammatical editing is allowed, Clampitt explains, so that the reporter's ``voice'' is preserved.

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