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Networks reach out to young viewers

Nov 5, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Grooming the next generation of television news viewers is a job some networks don’t take lightly.
A number of cable networks offer news-related programming free of charge to students and educators. And as a result of working with teachers and other experts in education, the networks have become masters in handling the toughest topics: President Clinton’s impeachment, the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma, AIDS and HIV and now the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Among the leaders in programming news for kids are CNN, Nickelodeon and Court TV. “Nick News With Linda Ellerbee,” which runs at 8 p.m. (ET) Sundays, was launched to help kids understand the Gulf War. Ms. Ellerbee was preparing the 10th anniversary show when the two airliners crashed the World Trade Center, a few blocks from her New York City studio. She hastily modified that project to include key segments on terrorism.
Likewise, “CNN Newsroom,” another half-hour, commercial-free block of news for kids created by CNN and Turner Learning, began immediately after the tragedy to focus its daily product on terrorism-related news. On Sept. 11, writers and producers assigned to the show had a segment and a lesson plan for teachers available by early afternoon. “At critical times is when we do our best work,” said Lucy Levy, VP of development and production for Turner Learning, the Atlanta-based education arm of Turner Broadcasting Systems. “Everybody turns to us at critical times, knowing that they can count on us to cover the story, and [we’ll] do it in a responsible way.”
Launched in the fall of 1989, “CNN Newsroom” is broadcast weekdays, 12 months a year on CNN from 4:30 a.m. to 5 a.m. Turner Learning also provides a Web site with detailed programming notes and lesson plans.
Ms. Levy said this kind of careful approach is key to the show’s success. “I think that over the years, the most important comment that we hear over and over is that teachers can trust what we give them. If they don’t have time to preview the show, they can be confident that the stories will be appropriate for the age level for which we produce them.”
In the case of the Sept. 11 events, “CNN Newsroom” dealt carefully with the stickiest aspects of the story. Segments focused on the rescue operations and the heroism and downplayed the pain. When reporters talked about the ethnic groups that were suspect, segments were coupled with background stories about the Japanese internment during World War II and an explainer on Islamic religion. “We try to put everything in context,” Ms. Levy said.
Ms. Ellerbee at Nick put the demand for careful presentation even more succinctly: “We have to be good storytellers to make kids news work. Our mission is to explain the news, which is different than reporting the news.”
Court TV, which usually offers criminal-justice-themed programming for middle school students, took a different tack in presenting a response to the Sept. 11 crisis. It produced a one-hour special on media literacy.
“Mind Over Media” takes a behind-the-scenes look at how major national and local news organizations determined coverage and how journalists deal personally with catastrophic news. High school-age journalists interviewed on-air personalities, writers and producers about how news organizations respond to crises and how viewers should process media images. The program aired both on Court TV and WNBC-TV in New York and was made available to affiliates and classroom teachers. A resource guide for teachers, parents and community leaders was posted online at www.CourtTV.com. Scott MacPherson, senior VP, public and government affairs for Court TV, said the network is planning a tolerance initiative to be rolled out in April for students at 60,000 schools across the country.
Many teachers don’t turn directly to the networks to find news for kids. Instead they go through Cable in the Classroom, a nonprofit, $2 million-per-week cooperative effort supported by 39 national cable networks and more than 8,500 local cable companies that provides schools across the United States with free cable service and over 540 hours per month of commercial-free educational programming.
Some cable networks produce programs especially for Cable in the Classroom. For example, The Weather Channel offers “The Weather Classroom”; ESPN2 provides a math program, “SportsFigures”; and the Discovery Channel produces “Assignment Discovery,” a theme-based series with relevance across the curriculum.
Other cable networks, including MTV and BET, have regular specials that are deemed particularly worthy for schools. Peggy O’Brien, executive director of the suburban Washington-based Cable in the Classroom, said her organization’s chief responsibility is to work with educators, networks and multiple system operators to identify good material and let teachers know it’s available.
These kinds of initiatives don’t come cheap-and the schools pay nothing. Court TV, for one, is hoping to find an angel advertiser to defray the costs. “Demand is beyond our ability to survive it,” Mr. McPherson said. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to justify the cost.”
Unless you count gratitude. Lisa Kennedy, who teaches physically and mentally challenged students in one classroom at Forest High School in Ocala, Fla., said if she could keep only one piece of educational equipment, it would be her TV and Cable in the Classroom.
Ms. Kennedy finds the television is a great equalizer, because kids can understand the material at their own level. “It has the greatest impact on my kids, and they get the greatest benefit from it,” she said.