Inside the Box: Making Kids TV

By Leslie Whitaker

Illustrations by Phung Huynh


Sprawled out on the couch, a 12-year-old lazily watches TV until his mother approaches the room, prompting him to tense up. His hand grazes the remote control before he greets her with a forced smile. Was he sneaking a peak at Real World, MTV’s show about twentysomethings that she forbade him to watch months ago? she wonders. Or was he actually tuned in to that charming Nickelodeon cartoon Little Bear all along, as he maintains?
    Well mom doesn’t have to wonder any more. Thanks to the V-Chip, new technology that is being built into all new television sets with screens 13 inches or larger, parents can block shows with the press of a few buttons on a remote transmitter. The V-Chip picks up ratings transmitted by broadcasters that indicate the target age for a program or the presence of potentially objectionable content, such as violence, sexual situations and crude language. (For a quick tutorial, see box on page 38.)
    While optimists may hope that this in-home censor signals the dawn of a new age in which children are fed a restricted television diet that includes only enriching and wholesome shows, the coterie of researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) who study the relationship between children and television know the picture is far more fuzzy. Not even the latest gadget can possibly screen out all the undesirable influences, cautions Dr. Amy Jordan ASC’86 Gr’90, senior research investigator at the center. With constantly changing lineups and evolving government regulations, children’s programming has become “very cluttered and confusing.”

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Amy Jordan, senior research investigator, Annenberg Public Policy Center. Photo by Candace diCarlo.


    Undeterred by the increasing popularity of computers and video games, television continues to play a major role in the lives of children. (It turns out that new media isn’t replacing TV so much as supplementing it.) They spend just as much time watching TV as they do sitting in a classroom—a staggering 1,000 hours a year. No wonder today’s adolescents have an easier time recognizing the Simpsons and the characters in Budweiser commercials than naming the vice president of the United States, one of the APPC’s findings. With the increasing numbers of children who have television sets in their own room—48 percent at this writing—this influence shows no sign of waning.
    For their part, most parents watch as little children’s TV as possible because its loud noises, bright colors and constant motion are not geared to their sensibilities. “It’s a painful thing to do,” admits Jordan. So when parents snuggle up with their kids on the couch to watch TV, they typically tune in to shows that, while they may be suitable for children, are made for a general audience. Only 25 percent of the shows most-watched by children between two and 17 years old were specifically designed for them; the top four were Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Boy Meets World, Two of a Kind and Brother’s Keeper—aired between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Fridays on ABC’s “TGIF” programming block. Even many network executives in children’s TV avoid all but their own shows.
    That’s why the work that Jordan is leading at APPC is so important: this research tries to get a handle on the big, constantly changing picture of what’s available for children. “We’re the ones who track the quantity and quality,” she explains. “We’re always trying to figure out how new regulations and the media environment have changed.”

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