Beyond 'Sesame Street': Quality Shows for Children

For some concerned parents whose children park themselves in front of wham-blam cartoons like "Power Rangers Zeo" or "Spider-Man," TV stands for Too Violent. But action heroes occupy just a fraction of the television band. With cable and network stations competing for viewers, the range of choice is now great enough to guarantee some quality programs.

Where to find them among the bewildering array? Even the coming rating system is not likely to include a "Q" for quality category.

Joanne Cantor, professor of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, defines quality shows as those addressing issues of interest to children without selling toys or including violent or antisocial behavior.

A 1996 report on children's television by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia found 97 percent of PBS children's programs to be of high quality, compared with 47 percent of programs on premium cable, 30 percent on basic cable, and 29 percent on commercial networks.

Annenberg senior research investigator Amy Jordan, who conducted the research, says, "You can always count on PBS, but the commercial networks have some work to do to come up to speed with enriching content for children." One positive change, she adds, is that "If the '90s brought anything, it's a trend away from toy-based programming."

Mark Honig, executive director of Parents Television Council, an advocacy group based in Los Angeles is a supporter of Nickelodeon. He notes the cable channel "realized the networks were underserving people looking for family-friendly TV in the first hour of prime time." To offset network sitcoms with adult themes like "The Nanny" and "Roseanne," Nickelodeon began this fall to schedule original child-oriented programs at 8 p.m. weeknights.

For those looking around the dial for quality TV for kids aged 2 to 12, some suggestions follow. (Times given are Eastern; please check local listings.)

Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? (PBS, weekdays at 5 p.m.) is a game show in which young contestants act as detectives. Appealing to older children, the show includes live action combined with glitzy special effects. The set resembles a spaceship, where "Time Pilots" answer questions about history to earn "fact fuel" and thwart Carmen.

Bill Nye the Science Guy (PBS, weekdays at 5:30 p.m.) teaches "science rules" to viewers of all ages. Fast paced with kinetic editing and throbbing music, the show uses all the visual gimmicks that appeal to children as well as humor and solid information. To teach about birds, for example, a character called L.L. Bloo J. sang a rap song in an MTV-style video. Bill flapped his arms like a chicken, raced an ostrich and, in general, made Mr. Wizard look like a stick-in-the-mud.

Blue's Clues (Nickelodeon, weekdays at 12:30 p.m.) is a play-along game for preschoolers. Entirely computer-animated except for the host, the show encourages viewers to shout out answers to help the host, a muddled young man named Steve, solve a puzzle. Steve sings upbeat lyrics like "When we sit down and think, we can do anything we want."

Wishbone (PBS, weekdays at 4:30 p.m.) is a Jack Russell terrier who might just as well be called Hambone. The stage-struck pup acts out roles from classic literature, donning appropriate costumes for each live-action gig. Wishbone dances in a waistcoat to become Mr. Darcy of "Pride and Prejudice," wears armor as Odysseus, or rides a donkey as Don Quixote's sidekick, Sancho Panza.

Hey Arnold! (Nickelodeon, Mondays and Wednesdays at 8 p.m.) presents a hip fourth-grader in this realistic animated show. Offbeat colors like mauve and acid green, a jazzy score, and a funky cityscape give it an underground feel while dealing with emotional issues in a positive way.

Doug (reruns on Nickelodeon, weekdays at 7 p.m.) and "Brand Spanking New Doug" (ABC, Saturdays at 8:30 a.m.) shows a junior-high schooler dealing with social and emotional problems. The animated Doug recently confronted bugaboos like math word problems and fashion fads, making and learning from his mistakes.

The Secret World of Alex Mack (Nickelodeon, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m.) features a ninth-grader with superpowers. The live-action adventure-comedy uses special effects to morph Alex to victory over her tormentors while reinforcing messages like the value of friendship and self-esteem.

Pappyland (Learning Channel, weekdays at 7:30 a.m. and 10 a.m.) is an old-fashioned, live-action show that teaches drawing. Pappy looks like a rube with his straw hat, bandanna, and suspenders and is unutterably corny to adults, but he has a Mr. Rogers-like rapport with tots. "You each have a style all your own, and that's pretty special," he tells viewers, who send in their drawings to Pappy's Hall of Frames.

For a look at what children around the world are watching, New York's Museum of Television and Radio is presenting on weekends through May screenings of 40 programs from 22 nations in their Fifth Annual International Children's Festival.

"Wishbone" and the popular cartoon Rugrats (reruns on Nickelodeon, weekdays at 9 a.m and 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 8:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.) represent the US. "Rugrats" depicts '90s families from a baby's perspective in a punk style.

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