Guilt Free TV

When Alicia Large was growing up, her parents rarely let her watch television. Even the Muppets were off-limits, she says, because her parents disliked the sexual tension between Kermit and Miss Piggy. Now 31 and raising her own sons--ages 2 and 3--Large views TV more benevolently. Her boys love "Dora the Explorer," so when she takes them on errands, she draws a map--the bank, the grocery store--so they can track their progress as Dora does. Among Large's friends, kids' TV--what and how much are yours watching?--is a constant conversation. Yes, many parents still use TV as a babysitter. But increasingly, she says, parents are looking to TV to help them do a better job of raising kids. "Our generation is using it completely differently," she says.

Parents have felt conflicted about television since its earliest days. Even Philo T. Farnsworth, TV's inventor, fretted over letting his son watch cowboy shows, according to biographer Evan I. Schwartz. That anxiety continues. In a survey released last week by Public Agenda, 22 percent of parents said they'd "seriously considered getting rid of [their TV] altogether" because it airs too much sex and bad language. But at the same time, for parents of the youngest viewers--ages 2 to 5--there are new reasons for optimism. Now that PBS, which invented the good-for-kids genre, has new competition from Nickelodeon and Disney, there are more quality choices for preschoolers than ever.

Inside those networks, a growing number of Ph.D.s are injecting the latest in child-development theory into new programs. In Disney's "Stanley," meet a freckle-faced kid who's fascinated with animals; in one episode, he and his pals explore the life and habitat of a platypus. Nickelodeon now airs 4.5 hours of quality preschool shows daily (in addition to learning-free fare like "SpongeBob" for older kids). Shows like "Dora" and "Blue's Clues" goad kids into interacting with the television set; studies show this improves problem-solving skills. Even the granddaddy of this genre, "Sesame Street," has undergone a makeover to better serve today's precocious viewers. The newcomers provide stiff competition to Mister Rogers, whose show stopped production in 2000 (it still airs on PBS). But he welcomes his new TV neighbors. "I'm just glad that more producers --and purveyors of television have signed the pledge to protect childhood," says Fred Rogers, who now writes parenting books.

That's the good news. The bad news is that working these shows into kids' lives in a healthy way remains a challenge. Much of what kids watch remains banal or harmful. Many kids watch too much. There are also troubling socioeconomic factors at work. In lower-income homes, for instance, kids watch more and are more likely to have TV in their bedrooms, a practice pediatricians discourage. But even as some families choose to go TV-free, more parents are recognizing that television can be beneficial. In the Public Agenda survey, 93 percent of parents agree that "TV is fine for kids as long as he or she is watching the right shows and watching in moderation."

When it comes to the right shows, "Sesame Street" remains the gold standard. Last week, as the crew taped an episode for its 34th season, the set looked comfortingly familiar: while Telly and Baby Bear worked on a skit near Hooper's Store, Snuffleupagus hung from the rafters, sleeping under a sheet. The show's longevity is a testament to the research-driven process founder Joan Ganz Cooney invented in the late 1960s. Then, as now, each season begins with Ph.D.s working alongside writers to set goals and review scripts. Any time there's a question--will kids understand Slimey the Worm's mission to the moon?--they head to day-care centers to test the material.

When "Sesame" began reinventing kids' TV in the early '70s, Daniel Anderson was a newly minted professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Like most child-development pros at that time, he assumed TV was bad for kids. Then one day Anderson taught his class that young children have very short attention spans. One student challenged him: "So why do kids sit still for an hour to watch 'Sesame Street'?" "I genuinely didn't know the answer," Anderson recalls. So he went to a lab and placed kids in front of TVs to find it.

What he found surprised him. Like most researchers, he assumed that fast-moving images and sounds mesmerized young viewers. But videotapes of kids' viewing showed that their attention wandered most during transitions between segments and when dialogue or plotlines became too complex. He hypothesized that even young children watch TV for the same reason adults do: to enjoy good stories. To test that theory, he sliced up "Sesame Street" skits so the plot no longer made sense. Even 2-year-olds quickly realized the story was amiss and stopped watching. Some knocked on the TV screen. Others called out: "Mommy, can you fix this?" Over years of research, Anderson reached a startling conclusion: "Television viewing is a much more intellectual activity for kids than anybody had previously supposed."

This research might have stayed hidden in psych journals if it hadn't been for the work of two equally powerful forces: the U.S. Congress and a purple dinosaur named Barney. In 1990 Congress passed the Children's Television Act, increasing demand for quality kids' shows. Then "Barney & Friends" was launched as a PBS series in 1992. Kids went wild, and merchandise flew off shelves. Until then, Nickelodeon and Disney had been content to leave preschool shows to the do-gooders at PBS. Now they saw gold. "The success of 'Barney' just changed everybody's feeling--it became 'OK, we should be able to do that, too'," says Marjorie Kalins, a former "Sesame" executive.

It was a profitable move. By 2001 Nick and Disney's TV businesses had generated a combined $1.68 billion in revenue, according to Paul Kagan Associates. Everyone admits that licensing money influences programming decisions. (Ironically, merchandisers at Nickelodeon lobbied against "Dora" because they believed that another show would generate more sales.) Ads and toys can detract from many parents' enthusiasm for the shows; no matter how much your kid may learn from "Sagwa" or "Rolie Polie Olie," the characters are hard to love when you can't get through Wal-Mart without a giant case of "I-WANT-itis."

Until there's a way to make shows free, that overcommercialization will continue. But for parents, there's some comfort from knowing that more TV producers are applying the latest research to make their shows better. This happened partly because researchers of Anderson's generation helped grow a new crop of Ph.D.s, who began graduating into jobs at "Sesame" and Nickelodeon. And like seeds from a dandelion blown at by a child, folks who'd trained at "Sesame" began taking root inside other networks. Anne Sweeney, who'd studied at Harvard with "Sesame" cofounder Gerald Lesser, interned with television activist Peggy Charren and spent 12 years at Nickelodeon, took over the Disney Channel in 1996. She hired a team (led by ex-Nick programmer Rich Ross) to design pre-school shows. By 1999 Disney had a full block of little-kid programming it branded Playhouse Disney. Today it uses a 28-page "Whole Child Curriculum" detailing what shows should teach.

To see how research can drive these new-generation shows, come along, neighbor, as we visit a day-care center on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Dr. Christine Ricci sits in a child-size chair, holding a script and tapping a red pen against her lip. Ricci, who holds a psychology Ph.D. from UMass, is research director for "Dora the Explorer," which airs on Nick Jr., Nickelodeon's preschool block. In each episode Dora, an animated Latina girl, goes on a journey with a monkey named Boots. Using a map to guide them (which helps kids' spatial skills), they visit three locations ("Waterfall, mountain, forest!" kids yell) and solve problems. As in "Blue's Clues," Nick Jr.'s groundbreaking hit in which a dog named Blue and the host Joe help kids solve puzzles, "Dora" encourages kids to yell back at the screen (often in Spanish) or do physical movements (like rowing a boat).

Today Ricci shows 4-year-olds a crudely animated "Dora" episode slated for next season. As they watch, Ricci's team charts, moment by moment, whether the kids are paying attention and interacting with the screen. At first the kids sit transfixed, but during a pivotal scene (in which Swiper the fox, Dora's nemesis, throws a boot down a hole) their attention wanders. One child picks up a Magic Marker, and suddenly every child is seeking out toys. All the while the researchers scribble furiously. When the episode ends, an adult asks the children questions: "What color button on the fix-it machine matched the tire?" Their recall is astonishing. "Sesame Street" has done this kind of testing off and on since the '70s. Ricci's team, however, is relentless, testing and revising every "Dora" episode repeatedly.

The following afternoon, Ricci, "Dora" creator Chris Gifford and their team study a bar graph showing how kids interacted with the episode minute by minute. To boost the numbers, sometimes they suggest better animation. Sometimes they call for a better "money shot": a big close-up of Dora. Fixing one segment--"Only 15 out of 26 kids were still watching," Ricci informs them gravely--requires more drastic measures. Gifford stands up, motioning like a cheerleader, to suggest livelier movements to get kids moving along with Dora during a song. "So often when you work on a TV show for kids, you forget about your audience," Gifford says. "We've set up a system where we can't ignore them." Similar work goes on at "Blue's Clues." Says Nick Jr. chief Brown Johnson: "It's science meets story."

For a parent, it's natural to get excited when kids shout back at the TV during "Dora" or dance to "The Wiggles," a music-and-dance show that airs on Disney. That leads some parents to look at their TVs the way a previous generation looked to Dr. Spock. Colleen Breitbord of Framingham, Mass., sees these programs as so vital to the development of her children, 7 and 2, that she installed a TV in the kitchen so they can watch "Arthur" and "Clifford" while they eat. "They learn so much," Breitbord says. "I think children who don't have the opportunity to watch some of this excellent programming miss out." In Ansonia, Conn., Patti Sarandrea uses Playhouse Disney, Nick Jr. and PBS "to reinforce what I teach the kids: colors, shapes, counting." At 3 1/2, her daughter can count to 25. Thanks to "Dora," her 18-month-old says "Hola."

As kids that young start tuning in, even "Sesame" is rethinking its approach. The show was originally designed for kids 3 to 5, but by the mid-1990s, many viewers were 2 or younger. The tykes seemed to tire of 60 minutes of fast-paced Muppet skits (the pacing was originally modeled after "Laugh-In" and TV commercials). So in 1999 "Sesame" introduced "Elmo's World," a 15-minute segment that ended every show. Even after that change, "Sesame" VP Lewis Bernstein noticed how today's little kids would sit still to watch 90-minute videotaped movies. So last February "Sesame" unveiled more longer segments. In "Journey to Ernie," Big Bird and Ernie play hide-and-seek against an animated background. Today ratings are up. The cast likes the new format, too. Before, stories were constantly cut short. "It was a little discombobulating," says Kevin Clash, the muscular, deep-voiced Muppet captain who brings Elmo to life. Now Elmo l-o-o-o-ves the longer stories.

So just how much good do these shows do? On a recent afternoon five undergrads sit around a table in the Yale University psychology department, playing a bizarre variation of bingo to try to find out. Together they watch three episodes of "Barney & Friends," each filling in hash marks on six sheets of paper. After each screening, they tally how many "teaching elements" they've counted. "I've got 9 vocabulary, 6 numbers... 11 sharing," says one student. Afterward Yale researcher Dorothy Singer will crunch the data and compare them with past seasons'. Her work has shown that the higher an episode's score, the more accurately children will be able to recount the plot and use the vocabulary words.

PBS does more of this postproduction "summative" research than other networks. Study after study shows "Sesame" viewers are better prepared for school. "Dragon Tales," a "Sesame"-produced animated show, helps kids become more goal-oriented, and "Between the Lions," a puppet show produced by Boston's WGBH, helps kids' reading. Nick research offers proof of the effectiveness of "Dora" and "Blue's Clues." Disney doesn't do summative research; Disney execs say for now they'd rather devote resources to creating more shows for new viewers. Competitors suggest another reason: Disney's shows may not measure up. "It's scary to test," says "Sesame" research chief Rosemarie Truglio. "Maybe that's a piece of it--they're afraid."

Network-funded research won't change the minds of folks who say kids are better off with no television at all. That view gained strength in 1999, when the American Academy of Pediatrics began discouraging any television for kids under 2. But when you parse the pro- and anti-TV rhetoric, the two sides don't sound as far apart as you'd suspect. The pro-TV crowd, for instance, quickly concedes that violent TV is damaging to kids, and that too many kids watch too many lousy shows. The anti-TV crowd objects mostly to TV's widespread overuse. Like Hagen-Dazs, TV seems to defy attempts at moderation, they suggest, so it's safer to abstain entirely. They believe overviewing especially affects children because of what Marie Winn, author of "The Plug-In Drug," calls the "displacement factor." That's when kids watch so much TV that they don't engage in enough brain-enhancing free play as toddlers or read enough during elementary school. Although pro-TV researchers say there are no data to support those fears, they agree it could be true. In fact, Anderson is currently conducting an experiment to measure whether having adult shows (like "Jeopardy!") playing in the background interferes with children's play. Bad news, soap-opera fans: the early data suggest it might.

Even shows the academics applaud could be better. In his UMass office, Anderson pops in a videotape of "Dora." It's one of the handful of shows that he advised during their conception. In this episode, Dora and Boots paddle a canoe down a river, around some rocks, toward a waterfall. Toward a waterfall? "If I'd read this script I'd have completely blocked this," he says, because it models unsafe behavior. Anderson has his arms crossed, his eyebrows scrunched; occasionally he talks to the screen, like an NFL fan disputing a bad call. "Oh, God, another dangerous thing," he says as Dora and Boots canoe under downed tree limbs. He still likes "Dora," but not this episode. "The education is a little thinner than I would wish, and it's a little dubious sending them on such a dumb journey." Then he watches "Bear" and "Blue's Clues," still nitpicking but happier.

Even as the kids' TV environment improves, shortcomings remain. Only PBS airs educational shows for older elementary kids (examples: "Zoom" and "Cyberchase"). In focus groups, says Nickelodeon president Herb Scannell, older kids say they get enough learning in school; what commercial broadcaster is going to argue with the audience? Producers have other worries. Mitchell Kriegman, creator of "Bear in the Big Blue House," says parents could grow too enamored of obviously educational, A-B-C/ 1-2-3-type shows. One of the most successful episodes of "Bear" involves potty training. "The [network's] reaction was 'Oh, my God, you can't say poop and pee on TV'," Kriegman says. "Bear" did, and families loved it. Tighter curricula could dampen that creativity.

But those are worries for the future. For now, it's worth celebrating the improvements--however incremental--in shows for TV's youngest audience. Not everyone will want to raise a glass: like alcohol or guns, TV will be used sensibly in some homes and wreak havoc in others. Debating its net societal value will remain a never-ending pursuit. In the meantime parents live through these trade-offs daily. A recent issue of Parenting magazine offered the following question to help assess parenting skills: "I let my child watch TV only when... A) There's an educational show on public television, B) I have time to narrate the action for him... or C) I want to take a shower." The scoring code rates the answers: "A) Liar, B) Big fat liar, and C) You may not be perfect, but at least you're honest." As kids' TV raises the bar, parents who choose a different answer--D) All of the above--have a little less reason to feel guilty.