PBS Sets Diversity Curve

Sep 6, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Children’s programming on public television has a long history of celebrating diversity, thanks to shows such as “Sesame Street,” “Reading Rainbow” and “Between the Lions,” which feature multicultural casts and story lines. There’s also “Dragon Tales,” with two Mexican-American characters, and “Sagwa,” which spotlights Asian culture. This season, PBS is taking its commitment a step further by launching several new shows that focus on the Hispanic American experience, one of which also seeks to bolster kids’ basic language skills.

Scholastic Entertainment’s “Maya & Miguel,” an animated half-hour that highlights the adventures of Hispanic twins and their bilingual parrot, will premiere on the network Oct. 11 as part of its two-hour after-school programming block, PBS Kids Go!

The creation of shows such as “Maya & Miguel” makes sense, considering the increasing diversity of the country, and in turn, the increasing diversity of the PBS audience. According to Linda Simensky, senior director, children’s programming at PBS, the conventional wisdom that public television is the domain of rich white viewers who can well afford other viewing options couldn’t be more wrong. “We have research that shows our minority audiences percentages are very close to the percentage of minorities in the United States, so we are confident that we are serving viewing interests for all ages,” she said.

Ms. Simensky described Latino kids as “currently underserved, due to a lack of children’s television programming which reflects their life experiences.”

The show is an amalgam of various cultures. The twins’ mother is of Mexican descent and their father is Puerto Rican. Maya’s best friend, Maggie, is a product of a first-generation Chinese American family.

Deborah Forte, president of Scholastic Entertainment and “Maya & Miguel’s” executive producer, said the show was developed with two primary goals: to promote the value of a multicultural society and to support English-language learners. But at the same time “Maya & Miguel” had to be as accessible to young audiences as possible.

“When children see the show they will see a fast-paced, very commercial-looking animated comedy,” she said. “But we’ve drawn upon research from language experts involved in development, so we are really trying to do this right.”

Ms. Forte said the show was not born out of the need to fulfill a PBS mandate, but grew out of her own idea of what she wanted to see creatively in children’s television.

“It came from a notion I’ve been playing with for awhile about an animated sitcom that was inspired by the comedy of Lucille Ball,” Ms. Forte said. “I thought it would be great to have a brother and sister to play off each other like Lucy and Ricky did.”

Although the characters Maya and Miguel are U.S.-born English speakers without accents, their cousin, Tito, is a recent immigrant and will serve as the show’s model English-language learner. The twins’ parrot Paco allows the show to repeat words and phrases in an unobtrusive fashion, an important tool in teaching children language skills.

“It’s a nice way to support the more formal language learning they are learning in school,” Ms. Forte said.

Scholastic Entertainment is also launching a Web site in both English and Spanish that will encourage language acquisition through interactive content and other Web-based activities. Ms. Forte said the site will also have bilingual pages for adult care-givers. “There’s a lot more going on than the show itself,” she said.

Al Jerome, president and CEO of Los Angeles public television station KCET-TV, sees shows like “Maya & Miguel” not as just a nice idea but as something crucial to his station’s relevance.

“It’s really taking cognizance of what’s going on in our marketplace and in the country,” he said. “In the Los Angeles market, the Latino audience is a fact of life.”

Mr. Jerome said this is why KCET also produced the prime-time drama “American Family” and why it is producing dual series for care-givers of pre-kindergarten-age children, “A Place of Our Own” and “Los Ni%F1;os en Su Casa.” Although not directed at children, the two shows, one in English and one in Spanish, are designed to give parents and the skills they need to prepare kids for school.

With child development experts stressing that the first five years of life are crucial in setting the pace for learning later on, early child care-givers have never been considered so important. “One-third are not prepared for kindergarten,” Mr. Jerome said of California 5-year-olds. “It’s very difficult to make up that deficit. We think we are going to make a major contribution.” Both programs premiere Sept. 13 on public TV stations throughout California.

In addition, Galan has developed a six-part series exploring the artistic contributions from the nation’s different Latino communities. The series, “Visiones: Latino Art and Culture,” runs nationally on PBS throughout September, which is Hispanic Heritage Month, and into October.

Mr. Jerome, who was president of the NBC owned-and-operated stations, said PBS is in a better position to provide programming that other broadcasters are not interested in, since public television does not face the same constraints for-profit media outlets must contend with.

“The advertiser-based marketplace has become so short-term that innovation becomes a little more challenged,” he said.

But he also noted that programming like “Maya & Miguel” and the two care-giver-targeted series serve a broader purpose, since they show producers they can program for niche audiences and provide formats that can be imitated. For Mr. Jerome, PBS has always been a leader in developing groundbreaking programs that reflect cultural diversity, particularly for younger audiences.