At PBS, Education Extends Beyond TV

The bread and butter of PBS is its children’s programs. Millions of kids were raised with Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Educational kids programming is a franchise PBS wisely guards and nurtures.

And not just with what it puts on the air. PBS shows engage kids with books, online sites and outreach programs. It’s part of the public network’s mandate, says Lesli Rotenberg, senior VP of brand management.

“For us, our mission is to help children succeed in school and life,” she says, noting that every PBS program is required to have an outreach component. “That points us in the direction of making sure we are serving the whole child with the content on our programs but also outside of the programs.”

PBS, in fact, provides several kid-focused Web sites that aren’t linked to any shows at all. There is It’s My Life, where they can talk about their own experiences; environmental site Eeko World; a fun consumer site called Don’t Buy It; the kids Web companion to Ken Burns’ Jazz; and a science site, Backyard Jungle. Kids usually find these sites on their own just by perusing the popular PBS Kids Go site at PBS Kids Go is the title for PBS’ afternoon block of programming, which will launch as its own multicast channel next fall.

PBS’ programming and outreach efforts have long focused on healthy living and education, specifically through the Ready to Learn program funded by Congress.

“We have stations around the country doing outreach and training workshops for parents, teachers and childcare providers,” says Charlotte Brantley, senior director of the Ready to Learn Service.

Moreover, education takes center stage on many of its programs, as it has for decades. The WGBH Boston-produced Between the Lions, for instance, has been teaching kids to read for five years, and not just on the air.

“With our major outreach efforts, we are trying to dig deep and go where there is the most need and kids have the fewest resources,” says Beth Kirsch, series producer of Between the Lions. “We worked in the delta region of Mississippi and with the Mississippi band of Choctaw Indians, where literacy levels are among the lowest in the country. We provided material for a full year, trained teachers to use the materials, we had classroom visits. We put on live shows. And there was a research component to see if this made a difference in learning to read.”

Upcoming series, with companion outreach initiatives, include It’s a Big Big World, focused on science and geography; Fetch, which will emphasize science; and Curious George, which will deal with math, science and engineering.

But PBS programs and outreach go beyond education. For years, they have also included nutrition (Cookie Monster on Sesame Street nowadays often snacks on fruit, not sweets) and health. Characters from Boohbah, for instance, have been traveling with the “Look What I Can Do” tour, encouraging kids to exercise.

Arthur, a series on which animated kids have addressed social issues, such as dealing with schoolyard bullies, has been on-air for a decade. Spinoff Postcards From Buster tackles similar problems but is also heavily focused on diversity. (When Buster dealt with a lesbian couple, the Department of Education objected, and some PBS stations refused to air it.)

“We have been dealing with health issues since season one of Arthur,” explains Karen Barss, director of educational outreach at WGBH. “These characters are part of the fabric of children’s lives, so we have the opportunity to get across educational messages. That is our job, and we take it seriously.”

PBS and its stations also encourage children and families to become active in communities. Zoom, for example, urges kids to talk to their parents about voting. And PBS helps out when disasters such as Hurricane Katrina strike. WGBH rallied a film crew to help out when the hurricane hit, explains Brigid Sullivan, VP of children’s programming at the station: “Our team, which was shooting a series in Mississippi, got on a bus and gave a show with live characters.”

PBS’ Rotenberg says the network often works in communities with its affiliates around the country, taking its educational and healthy-living messages directly to its audience.

“We have stations in every community around the country,” she points out. “One of our strengths is being able to take the media as a starting point but then getting on the ground and talking to daycare providers, preschool teachers and parents about ideas to extend the learning.”