IT'S a jungle in there: When it comes to children's television programming, the choices for excellence are few. Much more is merely harmless, and some of it is just plain awful.
Some critics of television say the medium itself is bad for children, while others say it can be educational and a harmless entertainment. But through all the discussion and the programming, two points emerge: There are those in TV land who are trying to make a difference as well as a living; and the key to making TV a positive experience for children is parent and caregiver involvement in their viewing.
Each network catering to children has a different philosophy about ``appropriate'' material and its presentation. PBS is still the primary source of excellence for young children's programming. And Nickelodeon is the only station devoted exclusively to children of all ages; its primary target is six-to-11-year-olds.
Of the major networks, NBC doesn't cater much to children, and ABC's cartoons are less than interesting. But entertainment-oriented CBS has a Saturday morning lineup that includes at least two programs to rival PBS for their excellence - ``Beakman's World'' and ``Storybreak.''
Even TBS offers one of the best cartoon shows on TV: ``Captain Planet and the Planeteers'' is one of the few cartoons with an intelligent, humane point to make about environmental problems and kids' ability to make changes.
Fox's ``Mighty Morphin Power Rangers'' is popular with children, but largely shallow and silly.
Alice Cahn, director of children's programming at PBS, says that preschoolers (age two to five) have the greatest need for educational programming. Teenagers and children aged 6 to 11 have programs directed at them, but those groups can also benefit from PBS's prime-time lineup of nature shows, science shows, and many dramas.
``We ask ourselves, `What is a child going to know when the program is over? What are children going to want to do after they finish watching this programming?' '' Ms. Cahn says, adding that she hopes one choice is to turn off the television. ``Each of our programs contains at least three or four good ideas for something to do when the show is off.''
Next fall, PBS will introduce a new series called ``Story Time'' based on a very simple idea - adults reading to small groups of children. Testing the show in Los Angeles, Cahn found that children liked it. There was a 10 percent increase in library cards issued and books borrowed, and many parents saw that reading to their children was a good idea.
This summer, PBS will begin a new effort called ``Ready to Learn'' that will include present programming as well as a series of between-show spots that reinforce social skills for preschoolers.
Of all the PBS programs on right now, arguably the most pleasant for adults to watch with their tykes is ``Reading Rainbow'' with LeVar Burton, who made a name for himself in ``Roots'' and as Lt. Geordi La Forge in ``Star Trek: The Next Generation.''
Mr. Burton projects masculine warmth, intelligence, and kindness. An excellent role model, he never condescends to his audience. Burton shows that books are relevant to real life, and he has something to say about patience, perseverance, understanding, prejudice, kids' cruelty and the appropriate response to it.
``We wanted to spark in them a love of literature - the whole idea that books are full of adventure and fun - so that we could impact that `summer loss phenomenon,''' Burton says. Educators have long worried about the lapse in children's education during summer vacation.
TBS's contribution to children's television is ``Captain Planet and the Planeteers,'' an environmentalist action-adventure. Barbara Pile was commissioned by Ted Turner to create a show that would directly empower children to create, in effect, a new generation of environmentally concerned citizens.
``I had supervised all the environmental programming for some time,'' Ms. Pile says. ``[Environmentalist] Lester Brown told us `We don't have time to train teachers to train another generation, because we don't have generations [to improve things], we have only years.' '' The show's message is: Everyone can make changes, and together, we can make great changes.
Pile points out that a child of three can recycle or remind parents to use seat belts - and they do. She also recognizes that children may feel threatened, too. One episode takes up the issue of gang violence. ``If kids are worried about drive-by shootings in their neighborhood, how can they care about what happens to the planet?'' she says.
Science has never been more amusing than on ``Beakman's World.'' Wild comedy, crazy costumes, and bizarre characters answer the questions children ask about how the world works. Funny as it is, it is all based firmly in real science. Experiments can be duplicated at home. The show is aimed at children aged 5 to 10, and is meant to impress on them that science is fun.
``As broadcasters, there are things we think we must do [for the public],'' says CBS's Judy Price, ``which are then offset by the Saturday morning profit center. `Beakman has been a successful show.'' But, she adds, in the universe of children's TV, where kids have lots of choices, they will more often watch cartoons.
Ms. Price explains that CBS has to be concerned with ratings, but that the network also cares about such things as diversity, providing an early-morning ``safe haven'' for children, programs with prosocial messages (the ``Little Mermaid'' cartoon has a strong female star, for instance), live action, and entertaining action-adventure that does not include realistic guns or real-life villains. No cartoon character on CBS will say, ``I'm going to kill you,'' she says.
MTV is a powerful trademark, but the company's station for children - the only station devoted to children on TV - makes more money and gets better ratings than MTV does.
``We're there for kids,'' says Herb Scannell, programming director at Nickelodeon, or ``Nick.'' ``Nick brought in a new idea - not just a menu of cartoons, but a whole range of programming. Kids like to play - they like diversity. We decided to be respectful of what kids are like.''
Every Nick program is researched with children actively advising, Scannell says. Scary stories are not too scary. ``Our agenda is to help kids feel comfortable being kids, to support the things they like. Even in the live-action sitcoms like ``Clarissa Explains It All,'' a kid centers the action and comments on it. Cartoons range from the charming, funny ``Doug'' to the crude, stupid, and sadistic ``Ren and Stimpy.''
Children have more choice than ever on TV. And parents need to help children make good choices, evaluate what a program says about the world, moral issues, and personal values. Parents should ``encourage children to understand what they are watching,'' says PBS's Cahn, ``and remind them that they ... should expect something back.''
CBS's Price reminds that children are also influenced by what their parents watch - and much of that may be unsuitable for children. Even some documentaries, important information for adults, may be too frightening for children. So much of television is built on crises that children can feel threatened by anything from daytime talk shows to soap operas to the nightly news.