Better than the V-Chip

Scene I (Your living room, a Sunday afternoon in 1997): You scan the weekly TV listings. A stylized "E" icon appears next to a score of programs. You mark several in red, and bring the guide to the dinner table. You chat with third grader Liz about watching the "E"-rated show "Arithmetic in Everyday Life." Then you ask sixth grader Tom if he can get home early from soccer to catch "Rhythm - from Mozart to Motown."

That Cleaverish scene, or something like it, is what PBS President Ervin Duggan would like his commercial and cable colleagues to make possible by adopting a new education rating system for TV. It would be a positive counterpart for the negative V-chip that is to warn parents about objectionable content in adult fare.

We like the general idea of raising the educational content of children's programs through a carefully monitored seal of approval. But we have some reservations about the specifics. If war is too important to be left to the generals, education is too important to be left entirely to "educational researchers" and behavioral theorists. And that is what the otherwise admirable PBS plan intends.

PBS lists nine criteria, at least one of which must be addressed by a program to win an "approved" icon. They include development of physical-motor skills, social/emotional skills critical thinking/problem-solving skill, language/literacy skills, science study, cultural/social diversity appreciation, and music/art appreciation.

All admirable goals, but smacking of bureaucratic yardstickery likely to snuff out creativity if writers and directors spend too much effort trying to please "experts" at the expense of intriguing kids.

Having raised this concern, let us hasten to wish PBS success. Mr. Duggan is attacking the right problem - seeking a practical antidote to the docudrama dreck, infomercial snake oil, and 'toon numbness that dominate the teaching box which commands so many of our children's waking hours. The effort just needs to steer a course that is neither too rigidly academicized nor too vaguely Good Housekeeping seal of approval in nature.

PBS and its commercial brethren ought to be able to design such a useful companion to the V-chip.

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