Little did Fred Rogers know what he started in 1963 with his “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
Since those early days of black and white TV, children’s public television programming has grown by leaps and bounds. The latest innovation: On Jan. 16, WQED PBS KIDS will launch a new TV channel to broadcast children’s programming 24 hours a day, seven days a week. About six months later, a gaming component will be added.
“We think of Pittsburgh’s very own Mister Rogers as our founding father, we really do,” says Lesli Rotenberg, senior vice president and general manager of children’s media and education at PBS. “And we think about the values that he represents and try to instill that in all of our content.”
Even in the earliest Mister Rogers episodes, she says, “you’ll see that his whole philosophy, in terms of technology, was how could it be used as a tool to help children?
“So now we’ve got a lot more tools at our disposable – the capabilities that he never dreamed of. But we take that approach and look at, first of all, is this developmentally appropriate for children? And then, is there a way to use it to help kids learn?”
With a core audience of kids ages 2 to 8 years, the new channel is an initiative to support early learning.
“Live TV is still the dominant way that kids access video,” Rotenberg says. “While PBS stations do a great job providing that live TV during the day, it normally cuts off at around 6 p.m. across the country. And that is actually peak viewing time for most children. Most children’s viewing takes place between 6 and 10 p.m. most week nights, and then pretty consistently on the weekends.”
WQED PBS KIDS programming is not merely there to entertain kids, the organization emphasizes. It exists to help children prepare for formal education by learning specific skills – in science, literacy, math, critical thinking – and by following the behavior examples of characters in their favorite shows. Once the gaming element is introduced, those lessons will be reinforced.
“The idea is: kids will be able to toggle between live video and game play. So, the games with be matched with the series that they support and they follow the same learning objectives,” Rotenberg says.
“The idea for this is really rooted in research we’ve been doing, pretty in-depth research, in low-income communities that shows that what moves the needle the most in terms of children’s learning is when they’re exposed to a learning concept on more than one platform in more than one way,” she says.
Families will need a tablet or smartphone to participate. The free app – PBS KIDS Video App – is popular already, having had 5 billion streams last year, and will include a live stream. The gaming component will be an update on the app, once it’s available.
“We think the timing is just really great in terms of the new American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines, which recently came out,” Rotenberg says. “Before, they were mostly just focused on the amount of time that parents should allow their children to spend in front of screens. It’s much deeper now and there’s more emphasis on the quality of the media itself.”
PBS KIDS is specifically noted in the November 2016 report as being the best content for children.
“They also put an emphasis on the value of co-viewing and how parents can really enrich the experience,” Rotenberg says.
The new channel’s evening and weekend programming will allow working parents to share the experience with their children.
PBS KIDS favorites – like “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” “Peg + Cat” and “Odd Squad” – will be part of the lineup, as well as new series – Jim Henson’s “Splash,” “Nature Cat” and “Ready Jet Go!”
“We are excited to build on the work we do every day for Pittsburgh area families by adding these new 24/7 services to our offerings,” says Deborah L. Acklin, president and CEO of WQED Multimedia, “ensuring that our proven educational content is accessible anytime and anywhere to all kids – especially those who need it the most.”
The free WQED PBS KIDS Channel will be offered over-the-air on 13.5 and on Comcast channel 200, as well as other area cable and fiber optic systems. The channel will live stream through pbskids.org and on the PBS KIDS Video App.