Thursday, June 20, 2002

Channel surfing

Intelligent TV is kid stuff

        It was 8 a.m., just about the time a kid might be pouring milk over her Fruit Loops, getting ready for another day of summer vacation.

        Breakfast in front of the TV could include a helping of violence if the child tuned to one of the morning news shows. Body bags in Jerusalem. A story about the principal who conducted an underwear check at a high school prom.

        Plenty of other choices were available Tuesday morning, of course. The family could talk to one another. Or read the morning paper. But — let's be real — family life in this country generally includes a television babbling in the background. Choices abound there, too, some of them quite wonderful.

        Little kids can learn the alphabet on Sesame Street. They can visit Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood or SpongeBob SquarePants in the cartoon city of Bikini Bottom. But that same cable box holds the keys to Maury and Jerry.

Reliably vile Jerry

        “Stop my teen from becoming a stripper” was Maury's topic. And our own reliably vile Jerry Springer showcased prostitutes. Something on Ch. 64 called ElimiDATE featured a lesson in alcohol consumption from “Charles-Liquor Boy.”

        This is all before noon.

        After that, soap opera people roll around in bed together all day.

        By nightfall Tuesday, the soap people were dressed and gone, replaced by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and something on the Learning Channel called Sports Disasters. An ice hockey player beat another to a pulp, as the announcer screams, “He's a freakin' madman. I love it.”

        This is the adult world. But children live there, too.

        Which is the point.

        “We don't invent the issues kids hear about,” says Linda Ellerby, who produces news shows for Nickelodeon. “We just try to help them make sense of it.” At 9 p.m. Tuesday, the network aired Nick News Special Edition: My Family is Different about children who live with gay parents. In the six weeks before the show was aired, the network was bombarded with more than 100,000 e-mails and phone calls.

        Most were part of a campaign by the Traditional Values Coalition. “We reached out to them asking for names of people to interview,” Nickelodeon's David Bittler said. “Instead of participating, they chose to try to silence us.”

"Better strangers'

        I asked if anybody from the coalition had previewed the show. “Nope. Nobody asked for a copy,” he said.

        At the precise moment the coalition's director, Andrea Lafferty, could have been watching to see if the program were as dangerous as she expected, she was railing against it on Hardball.

        She missed some great kids. Kind. Eloquent. Thoughtful. Smart. Of greatly differing opinions. Linda Ellerby led a discussion among teen-agers — some the children of gay parents, others morally opposed to homosexuality.

        “I was called a queer again today,” one girl sighed. A young Muslim girl suggested that we might look for “all the ways that we are alike more than different.”

        It was a television news show for children about tolerance and respect.

        Those who were looking for sex and violence should have tuned in earlier.

        E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393.


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