Call it the Aesop effect. Broadcasters faced with new FCC guidelines for educational programming are, by and large, relying on teaching children values rather than cold, hard facts. In some cases, the results will inform as well as entertain. In others, the shows are just cartoons in educational clothing.
As of Sept. 1, networks must provide at least three hours of educational programming each week. So does that mean kids will be racing home from school to catch programs like "Calculus Made Easy" and "Fun Facts About the Civil War"? Not exactly. The FCC left the definition of educational TV broad enough to include a whole spectrum of programs - from a junior edition of "Wheel of Fortune" to the historical "The Legend of Calamity Jane."
Middle-school education specialist John Arnold says a broader approach is wise. "TV isn't school; it's a visual medium. It has to entertain as well as educate." Dr. Arnold, a North Carolina State professor who serves as a consultant to ABC on FCC requirements, adds, "I don't necessarily see any conflict between the two.... Good educational TV piques the imagination, it fosters curiosity, it promotes intellectual growth. Shakespeare is a wonderful example. It's entertainment, but look how it makes people think."
Quality is a key issue with children's TV activists. "If the programming ... is good enough, then we applaud it," says Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television, who lobbied for the guidelines. But she adds, "Too often, I think the broadcasters make pedestrian shows and then have Superman eating an orange and say, 'It's nutrition education!' "
Saturday morning will still be populated by superheroes, aliens, and monsters. But the new programs do show a shifting current in the sometimes treacherous sea of children's programming - fewer bullets, more brains.
And, as Mrs. Charren points out, it's only the first step: "If there were a ruling to clean up rivers, no one would suggest swimming in the Charles [River in Boston] two weeks later. It's going to take time."
So how do the new shows rate? (All shows air in the morning and unless noted, on Saturdays.)
At the head of the class
Science Court (ABC). The only new show where your child will learn something academic (unless your sound isn't working). Created by Tom Snyder ("Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist"), this smart new series tries various scientific phenomena in court. Handing down the verdict is Judge Stone (voiced by Paula Poundstone). First on the docket: condensation.
Wimzie's House (PBS, weekdays). Talk about blended families! Wimzie's mom is a bird, her dad's a dragon, and she's all cute. Canada's No. 1 kids' show gracefully handles such family hiccups as being jealous of a baby brother with warmth, creativity, and more than a touch of whimsy.
An 'A' for effort
The All-New Captain Kangaroo (syndicated, Sundays). His hair is brown, his coat is blue, but El Capitn is back, as are Mr. Moose and his Ping-Pong balls, Bunny Rabbit, and Mr. Green Jeans. Grown-up fans will be relieved to see the new captain brings the same gentle sensibility as the old.
The New Ghostwriter Mysteries (CBS). Three kids (and a friendly ghost) put their problem-solving skills to the test, cracking such cases as who's running a gambling ring in the school.
101 Dalmatians (ABC). With its snappy animation, lovable characters, and the Disney seal of approval, just call it puppy love. A group of Harvard educators worked with producers to come up with this fast-paced cartoon about the lives of Roger, Anita, and their dalmatian plantation. Enjoyable? Definitely. Will kids want to watch it? Certainly. Educational? Well ...
Recess (ABC). This clever new show from two of the creators of "Rugrats" picks up where that toddler 'toon left off: school. This new animated show draws on strong characterizations, stylized animation, and a host of childhood archetypes to turn the playground into a veritable kingdom. A band of five intrepid fourth-graders wends its way through a wilderness that includes two boys determined to dig their way to China and King Bob, a sixth-grader who holds court atop the jungle gym.
Sports Illustrated for Kids (CBS) Baseball players Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez guest-host this show, which uses sports to teach kids social messages such as the importance of teamwork and taking responsibility for mistakes.
Pepper Ann (ABC). A feisty redhead braves such traumas as getting her first pimple the day before class photos. Some nice animated touches, but the story needs a better moral than "It's OK to shop at the uncool mall."
The Weird Al Show (CBS). "Pee-wee's Playhouse" meets "Saturday Night Live" in this uneven but good-spirited new show. If "Weird Al" Yankovic can get the creativity and energy up to the level of the theme song, he'll have a hit on his hands.
Wheel of Fortune 2000 (CBS). David Sidoni hosts this junior edition of the game show. A major minus: Lucy, the computer-animated answer to Vanna White. Aside from her shrink-wrapped outfit (she makes the Little Mermaid look downright chunky), her constant dancing and chatter are likely to make adults long for Vanna's blessed silence.
"The Bear in the Big Blue House" (Disney, weekdays), "Channel Umptee-3" (WB), "City Guys" (NBC), and "The Legend of Calamity Jane" (WB) were not available for review.