By Elizabeth Jensen
Special to TelevisionWeek
Debbie Miner was looking through the TV listings one day to find programs that might be relevant to her class of sixth-graders at Congregation Adath Jeshurun, a Jewish religious school in the Philadelphia suburb of Elkins Park, Pa.
“Never Again: From the Holocaust to the Sudan,” an episode of “Nick News With Linda Ellerbee” examining the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp and the Holocaust’s relevance to the contemporary crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region, caught her eye. She taped it and later requested a DVD and has shown it to her classes for two years running.
Sixth-graders, she noted, “are very social and enjoy talking to each other.” But both times she screened the episode, she said, “There was not a sound from the kids. They were glued.”
Ms. Miner, 50, said she believes that is because Linda Ellerbee, who hosted the episode, “speaks to kids with a tremendous amount of respect for who they are and what they are able to grasp. She does not speak down to them, and they’re able to get a tremendous amount of what she has to say.”
The students, she said, respond particularly well to Ms. Ellerbee’s interviews and discussions with kids themselves. “The balance of what happened with the past and the present and what we can do in the future was just right,” she added.
Moreover, she said, the adults watching the episode were equally impressed. The program, she said, “is absolutely something parents and kids can watch together, and both parents and kids can get something out of it.”
Ms. Ellerbee’s approach has made “Nick News” one of the more popular offerings of Cable in the Classroom, the cable industry’s initiative to provide commercial-free programming whose rebroadcast rights have been cleared for classroom use. “Nick News” has been Nickelodeon’s flagship offering to Cable in the Classroom for years.
Teachers like the show because, “Unlike a lot of the news shows, this really speaks to students and with students about their own issues,” said Helen Soul%E9;, Cable in the Classroom’s executive director. “It is students talking about what their problems are in ways in which teachers cannot. [Ms. Ellerbee] connects to students in the way they connect to each other; it’s almost peer news.”
Teachers, she added, “struggle with that-how to get that conversation going.” Parents struggle, too, she noted, and “Nick News” “gives parents an opening to talk to their children about some of the sensitive issues.”
Teachers who want to use Cable in the Classroom offerings record them when they are rerun, mostly during early morning hours. Some, such as the Holocaust episode, are run at later hours because of their difficult subject matter.
Cable in the Classroom doesn’t have a way to measure which programs get used more than others in the 830 hours of offerings each month from about 40 participating cable networks. (That number doesn’t include the full-time offerings on commercial-free C-SPAN.) But Ms. Soul%E9; said anecdotal evidence attests to the popularity of “Nick News.” Lately, she said, the organization has received a number of positive comments from teachers about programs Ms. Ellerbee has presented dealing with nutrition and obesity.
Jean Margaret Smith, Nickelodeon’s senior VP of public affairs, said teachers are so passionate about the program, they have volunteered to write lesson plans for some episodes. Because of high teacher demand, Nickelodeon has explored selling the episodes on DVD or video but has not decided whether to proceed.
“We are working through the details,” Ms. Smith said, adding, “Teachers would very much like to have an outlet for it.” One possibility, she said, would be to put the episodes on TurboNick, the network’s broadband Internet service.