By Debra Kaufman
Special to TelevisionWeek
News is still a niche area in children’s media. Internet search engines and service providers attract youth with music, videos, games and activities, but most give only a perfunctory nod to news. Cable nets make an effort to provide educational resources, such as Discovery Channel’s homework helper site Cosmeo, but the focus is on school subjects, not breaking news.
Still, for parents who want Johnny and Jane to learn to read, understand and even question the news, the situation is far from bleak. In an exploration of current events for kids and teens, both online and on-air, TelevisionWeek learned that PBS is poised to launch two major news services aimed at children and teens.
In September PBS plans to roll out an online resource for news aimed at children ages 8 to 11. “PBS has wanted to do something with news and kids for a long time, but our core audience is preschoolers,” explained Sara DeWitt, director of PBS Kids and Parents Interactive. After launching the Go TV block, aimed at early elementary age (and up to 12-year-olds for the online component), the executives at PBS realized they had created a platform that they could extend to news delivery. They received a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to develop the service, and promptly did a curricula study to determine which news topics would be consistent with what children were learning in school.
PBS then awarded its own grant to New York PBS station WNET-TV, which is developing the content: a Web site with a weekly newscast hosted by Flash-animated characters, bolstered by lesson plans for teachers and resources for parents. “The experts will help us choose topics that are appropriate,” said Ms. DeWitt. “Our goal is to help kids be critical thinkers and help them engage in news so they understand they’re part of a global community.”
PBS is also developing an in-school news broadcast and digital content for teens, headed by Dan Werner, executive VP for special projects. For the past two years he has been building partnerships with national organizations, educators, schools, school districts and TV stations, including WNET, to develop the project. Under development is a 10-minute multisegment daily broadcast, with a Web site that includes worksheets, lesson plans and other tools for educators.
After developing the conceptual framework of the programming, the project is moving into the production stage, said Mr. Werner, who notes that the content will be evaluated by a range of educational specialists. The service will move into its beta testing phase this fall at 20 or more sites across the country.
“Public TV is uniquely suited for a project such as this,” Mr. Werner said. “We’ll draw on the local strengths of our PBS partners to help produce local content and help with local outreach.”
The new initiatives join PBS’s existing news offering for kids, the online “NewsHour Extra,” which was established in 1997 as a site for students, itself a spinoff of the Web site for Jim Lehrer’s “NewsHour.”
“It was a magazine format and we would focus on a topic, such as floods, talking about the science of floods, the literature of floods,” said Managing Editor Leah Clapman. “But we realized that it didn’t allow us to react to the news and that it was missing tools for teachers.”
The ‘Extra’ Mile
With a grant by the Knight Foundation, “NewsHour Extra” added staff and redesigned the site for multiple news stories. In 2000 the site added lesson plans written by teachers, for teachers.
“NewsHour Extra” retains its connection, however tenuous, with the adult-oriented TV show. “We want students to be able to read what’s happening in Iraq, in a story written for them, so that when we have Condoleezza Rice on the ‘NewsHour’ they can watch it and understand it,” Ms. Clapman said.
The cable industry is publicly committed to offering educational resources, but that effort doesn’t frequently translate to news coverage. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association established its Cable in the Classroom initiative, which provides free cable broadband access to schools and libraries across the country as well as educational TV programming and resources. The vast majority of the available resources are, however, related to school curricula, not news. CNN is the exception, offering “Student News” (cnn.com/education), a 10-minute, commercial-free video program covering top stories of the day, with some in-depth reports. Aside from streaming on the Web, the program appears on Headline News at 3:12 a.m. (ET). It includes a curriculum component on the Web site for educators.
National Geographic Channel also is on a mission related to current events: geography literacy. According to a study conducted by the National Geographic Society and Roper Public Affairs, 60 percent of U.S. people ages 18 to 24 can’t find Iraq on a map. The study also discovered that 75 percent of the group couldn’t locate Israel on a map of the Middle East and 47 percent couldn’t find India on a map of Asia.
National Geographic, in partnership with several communities, launched a five-year multimedia campaign to improve geographic literacy. Anchoring the campaign is the Web site MyWonderfulWorld.org, which provides resources for parents, families, educators and youth. Families can watch or teachers can record and play back weekend morning programming from the National Geographic Channel related to the campaign.
Everyday Explorer is another National Geographic campaign, with local cable affiliates, to bring hands-on exploration to local schools and communities.
“Schools are under pressure for testing, so it’s hard for teachers to go off the beaten path,” said Kiera Hynninen, senior VP of marketing and digital media for National Geographic Channel. “We’ve been very conscious in knowing that what we’ll be presenting will be taught in social studies or history classes.”