The big money guys

Educational TV can't exist without marketing tie-ins. But some toys teach better than others.

Hundreds of first-graders in rural Mississippi have learned to read in recent years, thanks in part to award-winning public television programs and a host of enticing books and toys like Leona Bean Bag.

At $9.99, eight-inch Leona helps finance "Between the Lions," a programming innovation where cuddly musical lion muppets bring children into contact with the latest findings on how children best learn to read. The show builds on concepts introduced on "Sesame Street," the 34-year-old classic television show that now depends on revenue from the Tickle Me Elmo doll and other merchandise to pay for about 50 percent of its $15 million budget.

With the death of Fred Rogers in late February, the children's television industry said good-bye to one of the last creators who didn't sell merchandise to finance his show. Today, more than 20 programs draw on his pedagogical legacy to educate the preschoolers he gently welcomed to "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," but with one big difference: Unless kids buy the goods, their favorite shows and characters disappear.

Few observers would argue that the possibilities for merchandising have sparked robust competition and injected fresh offerings to the daily lineup of educational television. But on the question of whether merchandising leads to programming in the best interest of children, the industry's trusted voices are far from agreement.

Among those most wary of merchandising are public broadcasting purists and James Steyer, a Stanford University education professor and author of "The Other Parent: The Inside Story of the Media's Effect on Our Children" (Atria, 2002).

"In the days of 'Mr. Rogers' and 'Captain Kangaroo,' they just wanted to put on the best stuff," Mr. Steyer says. Now networks are "not thinking about children as little beings to love and nurture. They're thinking about them as little consumers to sell plush toys to."

But other makers of educational television programs beg to differ, saying well-chosen merchandise can enhance a child's learning experience while attending to bottom-line realities.

"If given the choice between the system we have now and a system where there were deep public resources set aside for quality-driven programming, I'd probably prefer the latter," says Joe Blatt, a lecturer at the Harvard School of Education and producer of children's programs. "But we don't have that in this country, and we never have had that.... If a merchandising tie-in goes with the show's mission, then it's not such a bad way to finance it."

Financing educational television never posed the hurdle for Fred Rogers that it does today. Because he wrote the scripts and songs himself, and because public sources dutifully supported his low-tech, low-budget, iconoclastic show, he didn't need to sell toys in order to keep cameras rolling.

Those days are long gone, however, as competition among myriad stimulating programs gives networks ample choices for what to distribute. Result: Networks pay less and less for any given show, or else produce their own shows in-house. Either way, virtually every show needs lucrative licensing contracts for related books, toys, and CD-ROMs to cover production costs.

Such pressures to sell merchandise inevitably come to bear upon those whose goal is to make television educational. In balancing dual needs to meet bottom lines and also make trustworthy programs, all seem to agree on this principle: An educational show should never exist or unfold for the sake of selling an item. Instead, the product should somehow emerge organically from a show's story line to advance or reinforce what children are learning from the show.

"We don't like to sell to kids," says Brigid Sullivan, vice president of children's programming at WGBH in Boston, where "Between the Lions" is produced. "We start from a societal need in developing our shows and we build from there."

"Elmo [the character] was not invented to become 'Tickle Me Elmo'," says Gary Knell, CEO of Sesame Workshop. "Elmo was invented to become a great character. The question is, how far do you want to push characters so they're not exploiting a relationship with a preschooler?... If something happens to enter the marketplace and it's consistent with our educational package, fantastic."

An example from Mr. Knell of such consistency: a for-sale video of the character Zoe dancing with performer Paula Abdul. The video helps build girls' self-esteem by showing female role models, Knell says, and by promoting physical activity.

Merchandising to children was of central concern to Peggy Charren, founder and president of Action for Children's Television, when she led the charge in 1990 to pass the Children's Television Act. The law requires broadcasters to air at least three hours of educational programming per week. She had been "nauseated," she says, to find 70 programs on the air with a primary purpose of selling toys. Example: "G.I. Joe" became a "whole little war show for children," she says, in order to sell the action figure.

Regulators never enforced the law, Ms. Charren says, because it purposely didn't define what constitutes educational television.

"You can't have legislation that says what's good," Charren says. "The problem with television for children is that everything educates.... If the leading character didn't hit the other one in the eye, then [networks said] it was educational programming."

Charren had hoped the law would encourage networks to feel a duty to air high-quality shows. Some such shows, she says, have in fact emerged - ironically with help from merchandising opportunities.

Charren praises, for instance, "Between the Lions" for employing multiple theories and approaches in teaching literacy. On the show, Muppets and live actors sing upbeat songs as children learn spelling and pronunciation. Charren also likes "Arthur," an animated PBS series that "deals with all the problems of childhood" and "wants children to feel safe." And she commends "Dora the Explorer," a Nickelodeon program featuring a young Latina role model and heroine. All three rely largely on the sale of books, featuring the shows' characters, for revenue.

Helpful as merchandising revenue can be, its accompanying pressures force frequent dilemmas for creators. At Nickelodeon, for instance, a consumer- products division regularly pitches merchandising ideas to those who decide what characters will do on screen. Such meetings can lead to "big struggles when they ask for something we're not comfortable with," says Brown Johnson, executive vice president of Nick Jr., the network's block of shows for preschoolers.

In one example of accommodation, staffers in consumer products wanted Joe, host of "Blue's Clues," to start appearing in five different colored shirts to get viewers to buy more shirts. At first, creators balked. But then they asked, "Can't Joe have more than one favorite color?" They decided he could, and the show would not sacrifice educational value by doing so.

When working with merchandisers, Johnson speaks of "marinating our partners in the 'Blue's Clues' way," which means the product "allows kids to play ... when the TV is off." Offering magazines, books, and on-line games, she says, means "characters [from shows] have a bigger sandbox to play in."

Yet not everyone sees the merchandising dynamic as a promising one.

"We're finding it harder and harder to get our new shows on public television," says Ms. Sullivan, who develops shows for Boston's PBS affiliate. Other producers offer their shows, such as "Teletubbies," at no charge to a network because they can count on merchandising revenue. Those at WGBH, who focus more on research and curriculum development than on marketing strategy, find themselves pounding the pavement to find distributors who will pay for programming.

Such an environment means experimental shows might not be developed. Knell describes one idea in which sofa crumbs come to life to discuss "what really happened on that show." The goal is to help children become media literate, but without a merchandising angle, the show would have to depend on grant money. And because online projects attract more grant money than do proposals featuring the long-familiar medium of TV, production seems a long way off.

Another neglected area, say Knell and Blatt, is that of educational programming for children ages 9 to 14. Because, as consumers, this group can't "nag" parents as effectively as preschoolers can, Knell says, producers devote few resources to shows for this age group.

Charren sees a glimmer of hope in the arrival of digital television. Distributors will have so much spectrum from which to make money, she says, that they can more easily afford to make educational television. And perhaps they will.

"It's a world," Charren says, "where the excuses don't exist."

All those toys add up!

Producers, even of the two respected children's shows here, say they can't afford to make programs without a merchandising element.

SHOW: Sesame Street

First broadcast: 1969 Network: PBS

Producer: Sesame Workshop

Educational value: Teaches social and cognitive skills with a mix of live characters and Muppets

Products include: books, puzzles, videos, CD-Rom, apparel, home and school accessories, plush toys

Annual production cost: $15 million

Revenue from merchandise sales & licensing: $7.5 million

SHOW: Arthur

First broadcast: 1997 Network: PBS

Producer: WGBH-TV (Boston)

Educational value: Offers encouragement and coping skills for everyday situations

Products include: books, videos, two character dolls

Annual production cost: $4 million

Revenue from merchandise sales & licensing: $1.4 million

Source: PBS

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