THE Public Broadcasting System has long set the pace for innovative children's television in the United States. But starting next summer PBS plans to break into a sprint.
The system is preparing two time blocks - 7 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. - that will be devoted exclusively to children's programming - all the current PBS standards plus a number of new shows. The morning hours will be reserved for preschoolers, with programs for older kids coming later in the day.
Even the time between shows will be reserved for kids, with quick, snappily produced ``breaks'' giving young viewers pointers on how to succeed in school and in life generally. Not even promos for evening adult viewing on PBS will find a place in these kids' hours.
This shift to concentrated children's viewing will begin in 11 test cities this July, if the current schedule holds. By January 1995, PBS hopes to expand it to 46 public stations, reaching half the TV households in the country. The project is dubbed ``PTV: The Ready to Learn Service on PBS.''
The phrase ``ready to learn'' picks up on a widely supported theme in the long-running effort to reform the American educational system. It was also the title of an influential 1991 report by Ernest Boyer, head of the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching. In that report, Dr. Boyer devoted a chapter to television's unfulfilled promise as an educational tool that could help young children become better students and citizens.
``There is no doubt the Carnegie report this grew out of is so key to many of the problems we're facing right now,'' says Diana Huss Green, editor in chief of Parents' Choice, a publication that rates children's media and toys. Of ``PTV'' she says, ``I don't think I've had higher hopes for anything I've seen.''
Ms. Green is particularly encouraged that PBS plans to actively promote the new children's lineup using ``up-to-date, 1990s advertising techniques.'' If this is done well, she speculates, some kids could be drawn away from a diet of ``shoot 'em ups.''
Jackie Weiss, project director at PBS for PTV, underscores that what's new about the service is not so much the shows - most of which are now on the air - as the attempt to bring children's programming into blocks of time and involve parents and care-givers in using the programs.
Ms. Weiss says that PBS ran focus groups around the US, bringing together parents, teachers, and day-care providers, to see what they wanted from such a service. ``That totally guided us,'' she says.
Parents didn't want to be inundated with material, Weiss explains. They wanted ``a few tips'' they could put to use each week - such as a simple calendar of what a particular show will be dealing with on a given date and a suggestion or two for related activities or reading. ``We want parents to turn off the show and then get involved in activities with their kids,'' Weiss says.
To help accomplish this, PBS is asking national organizations active in early childhood education or related fields to give it the names of local groups and individuals who then can be passed along to PBS affiliates. Participating local stations will have a staffer devoting his full time to forging these links with the community so that materials and information can be made available, Weiss says.
`IT became very clear in the focus groups that they wanted something very attractive to children; they wanted kids to be attracted away from commercial TV,'' Weiss says. It was also clear, she says, that all parents - whether African-American, white, or Hispanic - wanted TV shows that would help them give their children ``a sense of social and behavioral skills that will help them understand how to work with other people.''
The break messages that zero in on such skills as sticking to a task, asking others for help, and negotiation will respond to that plea. They are also an answer to critics who say PBS programming doesn't do enough to teach sound values, Weiss says.
Initial funding for PTV is coming from ``our own seed money'' and corporate support, Weiss says. Federal funds keyed to Ready to Learn programs should begin in 1995.
Parker Page, director of the Children's Television Resource and Education Center in San Francisco, says he hopes this undertaking is evidence that PBS is heading toward ``more solid ground'' financially. ``My great hope,'' he says, ``is that this country will give more funding to public television to keep this up, so it won't have to go hat in hand to every foundation.''