Quality Viewing For Kids: a Peek At the Possibilities

THE TV medium may not have made a New Year's resolution to this effect, but it will be entering the new year with some promising ventures on behalf of young viewers - very young in some cases. The series - some already under way - tend to be exceptions to TV's sorry record when it comes to kids' viewing, but together the programs suggest what the medium is capable of, and could do more of - with a push.

On Wednesday, the long-running PBS children's series ``Shining Time Station'' - a mix of narration, music, and animation - ventures into prime time with the debut of a series for family viewing. The step makes great sense, since the kids' show claims that adults already account for more than a third of its viewership. Called ``Shining Time Primetime,'' the new program will bring on guest stars, puppets, and views of the countryside, as well as some of the daytime show's regulars.

This past fall, PBS launched its first fully animated series, ``The Magic School Bus,'' designed to teach children a little about science as it performs the harder task of holding their attention. Next fall, PBS turns to literature with the planned premiere of ``Wishbone,'' a series whose aim is to get kids interested in books. The concept makes you shudder a little: A dog named Wishbone lands in the middle of scenes from such classics as ``Oliver Twist,'' ``The Odyssey,'' ``The Hound of the Baskervilles,'' and ``Romeo and Juliet.'' And lurking behind that format is something still more bizarre: the premise that the very tube to which kids are glued can unglue them and lure them into the world of literature. But it's worth a try.

Some of the new kidvid programming is peppy commercial stuff such as ``The Shnookums & Meat Funny Cartoon Show'' that will debut next Monday as part of a block of syndicated shows called ``Disney Afternoon'' and an innovative syndicated show that appeared last fall called ``Pigasso's Place,'' a comedy that combines live action with computer animation.

But meanwhile, one of the more compelling developments is the Jan. 16 launch of a new series on PBS. Called ``Puzzle Place'' and aimed at the two-to-six-year-old set, it is billed as TV's first attempt to teach children ``to celebrate diversity.'' The show avoids the lock-step of political correctness through its charming, low-key approach. The format involves a core cast of ``puppet kids'' of many colors and backgrounds who interact constructively with each other and with the ``puzzles'' of the world around them.

The opening scene of the premiere takes a jaunty approach to a mock-surgical scene, as the puppets try to repair a damaged teddy bear. They are a wise-cracking bunch as they surround the ``operating'' table - ``M*A*S*H*'' characters of the kiddie set - and they set a tone of free-wheeling fun that sharply sets off the serious scenes, when feelings and problems - sometimes focusing on ethnicity - are dealt with.

Feelings as part of a child's experience are still relatively undeveloped on kids' TV, and this program is a welcome step in that direction. In a waggish animated sequence, the opening show delivers a lesson in having respect for ``foreign'' names in American society. And it broadens the picture to describe where surnames came from in the first place. A mailman has packages for two girls named Jill - one of whom is a carpenter and the other a shepherd. How to mark his bundles? You guessed it: Jill Carpenter and Jill Shepherd. What's the mailman's name, asks another character named Joan Rivers (who lives on the river). ``I'm David Letterman,'' he answers. ``Oh!'' squeals Joan, ``Can we talk?''

Like the best of the PBS kids' shows, this one is sending some of its messages to parents.

There are other goodies around. Lots of things on Nickelodeon, for instance, and certain programs on other channels, like ``Shelley Duvall's Bedtime Stories'' on cable's Showtime. And of course there are the rewarding staples like ``Sesame Street.''

These are only hints at what the medium is capable of. But I'll take them.

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