Entertainment and education have been joined together since early humans would sit around their fires, retelling stories of their tribe's history and legends. Upon the invention of television, entertainment and education formed a solid partnership in programming for children, most notably on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), the most prominent provider of educational television programs. Due to the growing number of hours that children spend in front of television sets, Congress ruled that television stations have a responsibility to provide educational children's programming.
After the passage of the Children's Television Act in 1990, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) publicized their rules to carry out the provisions of the above act. Television stations are required to air a minimum of three hours each week of programming that serves children's educational and informational needs. This so-called core programming must be provided in segments that are at least of a half hour's duration and the amount of advertising that can be shown during these programs is limited to 12.5 minutes per hour during the week, and 10.5 minutes per hour during weekends.
According to research carried out by the University of Texas in Austin, preschoolers who watched educational programs attained better scores on reading, math and vocabulary achievement tests than their peers who watched general entertainment programs. The more hours of general entertainment programs the children watched, the lower their scores were.
Sesame Street, first aired in 1969, is a U.S. children's television series that was designed to help young children prepare for school. Originally targeted toward low-income families, a survey in 1996 found that 95 percent of all American preschoolers had viewed the show by the time they reached their third birthday. In addition to teaching children about the letters of the alphabet, the show attempts to model behaviors such as tolerance and non-violent ways of conflict resolution. Sesame Street's format includes animation, puppet skits (Jim Henson's famous Muppets), humor, short films and both adult and child actors. The show has won eight Grammy Awards and more than 100 Emmy Awards.
Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood is another popular children's show. Produced from 1968 to 1976, then from 1979 to 2001, the program featured Fred Rogers showing his viewers crafts, puppet shows, science experiments and what goes on inside factories. Mr. Rogers's calm and gentle personality played a large part in the pacing of the show, and he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in honor of his work in children's education.
The New Electric Company is based on The Electric Company, a popular children's television series from the 1970s. The show uses animations, music and sketches, and attempts to teach new vocabulary words to its targeted audience of children aged 4 to 8. The "good guy" characters possess the power to throw word balls and are frequently at odds with the Pranksters, the "bad guys."
National Geographic Channel broadcasts documentaries produced by the National Geographic Society¸ which explores world cultures, history, nature and science. Aired in more than 140 countries in 25 languages, the first National Geographic films were shown in 1964. The National Geographic television specials served to educate adults and children as they followed explorers such as Jacques Cousteau on his marine voyages or anthropologist Jane Goodall in her research on chimpanzees.
While the advantages of educating children via television include the enjoyable acquisition of knowledge and the benefit that they are not watching violent shows or programming that is inappropriate for their age, the drawbacks include the observation that too much television viewing often leads to obesity. Children who remain stationary in front of a television set for hours on end are missing out on physical activities such as jump rope, ball playing and other sports that are customary for their age. In addition, a steady diet of education through overly stimulating television shows often results in children who are bored, restless and difficult to control in a classroom, compelled to watch a teacher who does not contort him- or herself into colorful numbers and letters, unlike on television. Both of these disadvantages can be minimized by limiting the amount of television that children view daily.