Mixed Messages in Children’s Television Programming

Content Tools

Producers of children’s television work hard to help mom and dad feel okay about parking Joe and Jane on the couch. They claim to use “interactive” techniques to teach valuable social lessons, have educators on their advisory boards, and brag up carefully articulated “learning philosophies.” In some circles, it’s gotten to the point where parents who don’t let their kids watch TV are seen as backward. According to On Wisconsin (Summer 2009), how­ever, recent research suggests that while children are impressionable, adult programmers don’t know their own strength (or weaknesses).

The magazine, published by the University of Wisconsin–Madison, profiles the work of faculty member Marie-Louise Mares, who studies “prosocial” children’s shows like PBS’s storied Sesame Street. “Children’s interpretations of what a show is about are very different from what an adult thinks,” she concludes.

Mares had subjects watch an episode of Clifford the Big Red Dog in which the show’s cartoon pups meet a three-legged canine. Initially, they’re mean to the differently abled beast and express fear of catching “three-legged dog disease.” Ultimately, the protagonists learn a lesson in tolerance.

The children in the study didn’t always get the message. Many fixated on the dogs’ fear of disease, interpreting the lesson “along the lines of this child’s comment: ‘You should be careful . . . not to get sick, not to get germs.’ ”

Mares is working on ways to reach young viewers more effectively—describing a story’s moral in more literal terms, for example. It’s not as easy as it looks, though, especially given the medium’s commercial conceits. “She could create the ‘ideal’ show,” On Wisconsin writes, “but then kids wouldn’t want to watch.”