By Natalie Finn
Special to TelevisionWeek
During an executive retreat in 2002, KCET-TV President and CEO Al Jerome challenged his staff to come up with new yet old-school programming ideas. He wanted shows that were fresh but still emphasized the Los Angeles-based PBS station’s original broadcasting mission that dated to the 1960s: education.
For about four years, KCET, whose tag line is “Infinitely More,” had steered away from children’s education, relying instead on PBS staples such as “Sesame Street” while focusing on the production of talk, documentary and drama series, including “Tavis Smiley” and “PBS Hollywood Presents.”
KCET commissioned a white paper on the state of early childhood education to nail down the areas that most needed addressing. The station presented its findings to the KCET board.
Some of the findings that especially stuck out: If children are not working at their age-designated level by the second grade, there’s only about a 15 percent chance they will ever catch up. And in California, 60 percent to 70 percent of preschool-age children are not in preschool for various socioeconomic and cultural reasons, and the majority of those children are of Latino heritage.
The mission became clear: Create a program to address the needs of those kids so they won’t be left behind. And there was only one place to start-in the home.
KCET tested a variety of formats, including a reality show and a telenovela. But the idea that stuck was a talk show that targeted parents or other child care providers to give them the resources and knowledge necessary to make the most of the time they spend with their kids at home.
The result was “A Place of Our Own” and its Daytime Emmy-winning Spanish-language counterpart “Los Ni%F1;os en Su Casa,” both of which are being honored with a2005 Peabody Award after wrapping up their second season. They premiered in September 2004, and KCET went on to produce 120 episodes-each-for the first season.
“[KCET] decided that if they created a show directed to the adults who care for the children, that if we could educate them, they will transfer that knowledge on through the care of their kids,” said executive producer Stephanie Drachkovitch, whose 44 Blue Productions produces the two shows with Sesame Workshop. “Those kids will benefit, and by the time they get to kindergarten they’ll be in good shape if they don’t get to go to preschool.”
“With the PBS lineup being so strong in children’s programming, we felt the obvious complement was for the caregivers,” said Mary Mazur, executive VP of programming and production for KCET.
Importance of Storytelling
KCET’s research also highlighted the opportunity for dual productions, which was a first.
“I had to take a deep breath,” Ms. Mazur said. “I had raised money for one version and here we were committed to two.”
The majority of the shows’ funding comes from energy company BP, First 5 California and the nonprofit First 5 LA.
Teacher and comedian Debbie Gutierrez hosts “A Place of Our Own,” while actor Alina Rosario helms “Los Niños en Su Casa.” What’s striking about the two shows, which are filmed five episodes at a time-in English on Tuesdays, in Spanish on Thursdays-is how much they mirror each other. The featured guests can differ from version to version because of language capabilities, but the producers of the two shows strive to make the same universal points while maintaining each version’s cultural identity.
Topics are wide-ranging and have included the importance of storytelling, milestones parents should expect a child to reach between the ages of 1 and 2, and how to obtain low-cost health services.
Episodes start with a panel discussion. Then there’s a featured activity. In a given week there is a show devoted to cognitive learning or intellectual development, one for social-emotional needs, one about physical well-being, and so on.
Throughout, the series maintains the same lively, positive tone-a “Mister Rogers” for adults mixed with “The View.”
Produced in Los Angeles, the series are on in all of California’s major markets, including San Francisco and San Diego. And the feedback has been tremendous.
Ms. Mazur recalled an e-mail producers received from a woman-who already had a pediatrician and access to child care professionals-who wanted advice about her child, whom she felt was a slow learner.
“She’s writing to producers of a television program that clearly is impacting her,” Ms. Mazur said. “We are in her home on a daily basis; we’re trustworthy. She has a fair amount of resources available to her in her daily life and she wants our opinion as well. You can never underestimate the power of your content, and you really have to take that seriously.”
KCET certainly seems to do just that. The shows air every day, but the station has taken its mission much further. Extensive Web sites for both series recap episodes, address special topics, provide links and contact info for organizations such as the National Center for Family Literacy and offer videos of group discussions that address a range of issues, complete with a recap of the conversations’ main points.
KCET also runs outreach programs in hospitals, churches and community centers, conducting workshops and doling out DVDs, tapes, books and caregiver activity kits.