PBS President Paula Kerger says commercial networks neglect young viewers

By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, January 14, 2010

PASADENA, CALIF. -- PBS President Paula Kerger opened her Q&A at Winter TV Press Tour 2010 by blasting commercial broadcasters for blowing their responsibilities under the 1990 Children's Television Act.

That act requires broadcasters to provide a minimal amount of educational and informational programming.

"Independent research shows how much of the educational children's programming on commercial TV fails to meet even the basic requirements," Kerger said. "Our kids deserve better."

When children go to access the networks' content for kids online, "the lines between commerce and content are blurred beyond recognition," she added.

"At PBS we remain firm in our conviction that media should be used to serve kids and not to sell to them," Kerger said.

A "great body of research demonstrates that children under the age of 6 or 8 years old really don't recognize the difference between advertisement and content," she warned.

But one critic asked her if, when she criticized other kids' sites for trying to sell things to them, "you are distinguishing between their selling outside products to kids" and PBS's Sesame Street and SuperWhy! toys, among other products PBS is involved in marketing to kids.

"We're not selling that on our Web site," Kerger began.

"But still, all those programs are very heavily commodified for children, aren't they?" the critic asked.

"Our programs -- the programs came first, and the products or the toys -- many of which are educational toys -- were developed as a way to extend the programs in other ways, in other platforms, including toys. That's different from many commercial vendors, which actually start with the toys and then back into the programs."

No word on whether kids younger than 6 or 8 understand that distinction.

Another Karger-issued distinction that perhaps minds with advanced degrees can puzzle over:

In December, PBS announced that it had signed a deal with Nielsen to receive heaps of additional data from the number-crunching company.

PBS has subscribed to Nielsen for extensive daily audience and demographic information not because it wants to use the information to make programming decisions, Kerger told TV critics.

The reason is that organizations that fund PBS want to use the stats as they're deciding whether to fund the programs, she said.

Elliptically. Like this:

"The decision to subscribe to Nielsen is not about making decisions based on ratings. That was really so we could try to quantify the number of people that our programs are reaching. And because so many of the people that we go to for funding ask the question, and we want to be able to answer it accurately. . . . That's the reason that we subscribe to Nielsen," she said.

And though she insisted more than once during her Q&A that demographics -- old ones, that is -- don't matter, she thought it important to let critics know "the fact is that more than half of the people that are coming to us on PBS.org are under 35, and I'm talking now only about the adult users of our content, not about children. So half of the adults that are coming to PBS.org are under 35," which sounded suspiciously like a CBS sales exec at a pitch with potential advertisers.

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