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Building on 44 years of “Sesame Street,” new generation of kids’ TV grows up, educates

Peg has a cat. Peg likes songs. And Peg uses math to get herself out of jams.

If that sounds like the napkin sketch for a kiddie show, it is. “Peg + Cat,” which debuted on PBS last week, is the best-reviewed new children’s television show of the season, combining spare but stylish animation and a strong sense of humor to teach kids mathematics.

“I was looking for a math show and I knew that it had to be the funniest thing I’d ever made,” said Linda Simensky, vice president of children’s programming at PBS and a veteran of Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. “It’s a little bit of alchemy when all those intangible qualities come together to make something work. To me it represents all these years of learning that we’ve been doing in the industry.”

The fact that “Peg + Cat” overtly targets kids’ brains is relatively rare these days. But its kudos aren’t just a culmination of Simensky’s kid-TV lessons.

They’re more proof that entertainment can still provide a pathway to learning. And in an industry where tiny viewers are measured in the millions — and shows increasingly leak from TVs into mobile devices, video games and touring stage productions — it’s also a lesson some children’s shows have left behind in their drive to dominate the market.

Once upon a time, slime and slop ruled the land. Nickelodeon’s “Double Dare” and “You Can’t Do That on Television” took game shows and comedy sketches to new gross-out heights in the mid-to-late 1980s, setting the stage for influential cartoons such as “Ren and Stimpy” and “Rugrats” — and bucking the assumption that television for kids needed to be inherently educational.

“Nickelodeon actually started more than 30 years ago as a ‘green-vegetables’ educational channel that was used to sell the Movie Channel. But they got rid of that reputation because it almost ruined them,” said Mathew Klickstein, author of the new book “Slimed!”

“They said, ‘Our job is not to educate kids. Let’s just give the kids what they really want,’ which was a fun destination to hang out.'”

Klickstein, who will visit Boulder’s Innisfree Poetry Bookstore & Cafe on Oct. 16 for a reading and signing, believes the shows of Nickelodeon’s 1990s “golden age” were enormously influential in shifting kids’ TV away from the teaching-oriented tone of PBS programs like “Sesame Street.” The Nick “golden age” included live-action shows such as “The Adventures of Pete & Pete” and “Clarissa Explains It All” and quirky animated fare like “Rocko’s Modern Life” and “Doug.”

“To do an entire network for kids was revolutionary at the time,” Klickstein said. “It also had resonance with college kids, older siblings and people in their 20s and 30s. But I don’t even know what’s on Nick these days, and that says a lot. After the golden age they were more focused on going global and merchandising.”

Klickstein isn’t the only one who feels the network, now known for “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Dora the Explorer,” has little appeal outside its target audience.

“If they wanted to do something smart they’d go back to putting live humans in their programming that kids can relate to,” said Marc Summers, former host of “Double Dare” and “What Would You Do?” and now a producer for the Food Network.

“The crap that’s on Nick today is all about cartoon characters and stuffed animals, and that’s why they’re making a mistake. Disney isn’t doing that. They have live human beings in their (shows).”

Last March, the Disney Channel beat Nickelodeon for the first time in its average number of total daily viewers, according to Nielsen research, although the networks remain competitive ahead of challengers such as the Cartoon Network.

All are struggling to beat back the advancing armies of video-on-demand services such as Netflix and the non-programming world of video games.

Enter edu-tainment

The precedent set by successful kids’ shows of the past few years — and the profits they’ve generated with merchandising and touring shows (see the Wiggles and Yo Gabba Gabba!) — has shifted the balance in children’s programming away from overtly educational, according to PBS’ Simensky.

But it hasn’t killed it altogether.

“We all know a bit more about the science of this these days,” she said in reference to the focus groups and market research that drives many programming decisions. “But the one thing we’ve always known is that kids will learn more if they think something is interesting and funny.”

AE13TVKIDS_2.jpg“We all know a bit more about the science of this these days,” she said in reference to the focus groups and market research that drives many programming decisions. “But the one thing we’ve always known is that kids will learn more if they think something is interesting and funny.”

Attracting young viewers with humor and imaginative scenarios has long been a part of kids’ programming. From “Howdy Doody” — which was used in part to sell color TV sets in the 1950s — and “Captain Kangaroo” to the birth of Saturday morning cartoons in the 1960s, kids’ TV was generally more silly than scholastic.

But when the Children’s Television Workshop shows “Sesame Street” (which introduced Jim Henson’s Muppets) and “The Electric Company” began attracting millions of daily viewers in the 1970s, PBS proved that learning and entertainment were not mutually exclusive.

Despite the crowded marketplace for kids’ programming, PBS still boasts impressive numbers: 82 percent of all U.S. children aged 2-8 watched it during the 2011-12 season, according to Nielsen research.

Multinational brands such as Disney and Nickelodeon stretch even further. Globally, Nick reaches more than 350 million viewers in 25 languages, according to spokesperson Dan Martinsen. He notes that, like “Sesame Street” before it, Nick programs such as “Dora the Explorer” and “Hey Arnold!” have emphasized multiracial characters from different economic backgrounds.

“Diversity has always been a huge aspect of what Nick represents, and we’ve learned that diversity is good for business,” Martinsen said. “If you have a kid watching something from home and it looks like them, they’re more inclined to come back.”

The fundamental thing all successful kids’ shows have in common, however, is communicating with children on their level.

“There used to be this sense that kids would watch anything, but just because they would doesn’t mean they should,” said Simensky. “Now it’s all about respecting your audience by thinking like a kid.”

And, of course, cultivating a loyalty that keeps them coming back for more.

John Wenzel

Mile High Mamas
Author: Mile High Mamas

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