Thursday, May 29, 2003

An FCC Tale: The End of the Reading Rainbow

It's not only about newspapers and talking head rant. The FCC's runaway train toward the further consolidation of the American media goes beyond rams its way straight into the hearts and minds of America's children...


When I was a young mother, I made some unspoken promises to my kid. I vowed she'd be raised strong and independent. I promised to do all I could to help her develop critical thinking skills. I made a pledge to bring up a compassionate and curious child.

The way I planned to mold my kid into the person I hoped she'd be was by showering her with simple but healthy experiences and by filling her life with good stuff, like art, literature and music. As backdrop to this plan, I convinced her skeptical father that color played an important role in a child's development and then shipped him off to paint her room in primary hues. Next, I loaded her shelves with books and tunes, and brought in gender-neutral toys like fire trucks and balls, crayons and paints. Finally, I officially banned Barbie from the household. This being my eighth month of pregnancy, the kid wasn't even born yet. I was set to parentally rock and roll...

I'm still no expert, and I've made my share of mistakes. But I've learned a thing or two about raising kids in these last sixteen years. You give it your all and you hope for the best, but bringing up a child in these modern times is frankly, something of a crapshoot. Sometimes, things just don't turn out as we plan...

Case in point...

barbie text.gifMy daughter was three when The Barbie Doll invaded our home. It was during an innocuous enough birthday party and it happened so fast, that it's become a blurry memory. I do recall that the wrapping paper was off in a matter of seconds and next thing I knew, my kid's life was turned upside down by the ubiquitous Mattel-motif: hearts, flowers, lace and even a bubblegum pink plastic doll-sized convertible. Those gender-neutral playthings suddenly held no interest and our kid had finally discovered the truth: she was a girl child being raised in Toys-R-Us America. Unfortunately, that was seen as a very cool concept - one she quickly embraced. I had no alternative but to bring in the heavy equipment. I began pushing the books. Bigtime.

"Alright, this is the deal," I said in similar words on very many occasions, "If you behave yourself, I'll take you to the library this morning. You can take out ALL the books you want. And...if you're EXTRA GOOD, I'll even let you watch Reading Rainbow. But listen here, Missy...that means no decorating the walls with that address stamper or tormenting the cat. Got it?"

Alright, it was parental propaganda. I'll admit it. I was messing with my kid's head - hoping she'd crave the books I'd elevated to toy status. I couldn't help myself. But having lost the Barbie Wars, I wasn't about to surrender the rest. As it turns out, I didn't have to.

reader.gifReading Rainbow is celebrating its 20th consecutive season in children's programming. After all these years, this amazing and award-winning show is still hosted by the engaging actor, LeVar Burton. At each episode, Burton introduces a nation of 6-8 year olds (and younger, if Mom parks them in front of the tube) to some of the finest in children's literature. Each episode involves an author (or an actor, filling in) reading his/her work, and in addition to dramatic recitations, these lucky kids are treated to a quality production - one that brings them inside these books and onto those exquisitely illustrated pages.

My daughter, and later her little brother, were captivated by Reading Rainbow. Their library wish-list was developed in part by exposure to the program. After awhile, Barbie hit the road and Anne of Green Gables and Treasure Island moved in. Today, my kids - like millions of other Reading Rainbow alum - are both voracious readers and critical thinkers. And I'm not exaggerating when I say millions. We're talking multitudinous millions of American kids who learned to love reading, thanks to this innovative program. Well, according to the Associated Press' David Bauder, those fun and vitally important lessons may soon be coming to an end.

In his piece, Reading Rainbow: Fighting for Survival, Bauder explains why this exemplar of excellence in children's broadcasting is facing a bleak future...

"Reading Rainbow" has several strikes against it in the battle for funding. For starters, it has no access to merchandise licensing deals, an increasingly important part of PBS' funding scheme for children's shows. There are no "Reading Rainbow" action figures to sell, no "Reading Rainbow" jammies to keep kids warm at night.

The series is also 20 years old when many corporate benefactors prefer being involved with something new. And the show's narrow audience — children 6 to 8 who are just learning to read — doesn't give sponsors the broad exposure they're seeking, said Amy Jordan, senior researcher on children and the media at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.

Other programs, like "Clifford the Big Red Dog," have book series attached to them. But "Reading Rainbow" is the only one that introduces children to a wide range of literature, Jordan said.

"What `Reading Rainbow' saw, before anybody else saw it, is that you can use this medium of television to get kids excited about reading," she said.

bux.gifReading Rainbow is proof positive that quality programming is possible in our TV-Wasteland America. But the Big Media players - the ones who make mega bux off of their free use of the public's airwaves - don't feel they're raking in quite enough dough off of Reading Rainbow. It boils down to their not being able to sell all the peripheral junk - the lucrative stuff they move so easily with the more commercialized programs.

In a fair world, LeVar Burton would not have to go begging for pennies, and programs like Reading Rainbow would be part of Big Media's debt to the American people. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the licensing body that oversees the public's airwaves would be enforcing the rules that call for broadcasters to air a modicum of programming in the public interest, and money would be made available for the LeVar Burtons of the world. If we were truly concerned about fairness, American kids would have a healthy selection of quality fare to choose from on the commercial networks. Why doesn't the FCC do its job?

Instead, on Monday, June 2, the Federal Communications Commission, under the leadership of its chairman, the corporately buttock-kissing Michael Powell, is planning to dismantle media rules and put more power into the hands of those who know how to make cash, but haven't a clue how to honor their obligation to America and its children. It's time we put the brakes on this runaway FCC/Corporate train. It's time we made both parties keep their promise to American kids.

Click here and let True Majority help you contact the FCC and your legislators. Remind them that Big Media has reneged on their promises to the children, as well as the adults of this country. Tell them that they owe US...we don't owe them. Tell the FCC to vote NO on plans to hand over more power to Big Media. This instant activism won't take but a moment of your time, and if nothing else, it will show the corporate players that Americans will simply not sit back silently, anymore.

Oh, yeah...and P.S. - if you know anybody with deep pockets and a mind toward philathrophy, put them in touch with LeVar Burton. He's got this guaranteed way to launch the littlest of American kids onto the joyous path of lifetime reading.

cross-posted at RuminateThis

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