Does Children's TV Have to Be Edifying?

All praise Bill Nye, the Science Guy! A pox upon the Power Rangers!


Yet another study, this one conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, has concluded that there's little of value in children's television. The authors found that 28 percent of children's programs contained four or more acts of violence, that 45 percent contained "problematic" language and that only a third of shows classified as "educational" under guidelines set by the Federal Communication Commission were in fact "highly educational." The others, said the researchers, were only "moderately" or "minimally" so.

We can expect the study—like others that issue forth from think tanks, advocacy groups and ambitious legislators with more regularity than candy commercials on the Cartoon Network—to initiate yet another round of debate about the pressing need for children's programs that not only delight but also edify, that not only entertain but also instruct.

Such pleas are misguided in at least two fundamental ways.

For starters, they beg the question of exactly why television should be educational in the first place. Don't we already have schools and parents for that? Children are spending more time than ever before in educational settings, whether it's preschool, year-round schools or after-school tutoring programs. Children today are every bit as busy as their parents. Is it so wrong to deny them a few moments of ostensibly mindless entertainment in between "Hooked on Phonics" tapes?

More important, however, the push for "quality" television ignores the actual education children do glean from the boob tube, especially from the Saturday morning fare so reviled by the Annenberg crowd.

Forget about openly "educational" programming like "The Magic Schoolbus" and "Schoolhouse Rock." What these shows tell children about, say, the human body or using conjunctions properly can be picked up easily enough elsewhere, whether on a playground or in a public library.

Consider instead the singular wisdom learned from animated sages like Bugs Bunny. The irrepressible, Oscar-winning rabbit and his cartoon cohorts have taught millions of American children precisely the sort of powerful, subversive truths from which adults try to shield them: that smart-alecks have more fun; that mocking authority is often the right thing to do; that tortoises beat hares (especially when tortoises cheat); that the world is often a cruel and desperate place that would just as soon drop an anvil on your head as give you a hand up, and, most important of all, that a sense of humor and resilience is the only way to make it through the years to come.

For some, such insights may indeed have little value. But for many of us, such lessons were priceless—and an absolutely indispensable part of growing up.