Television programming has the power to inform, to guide, to persuade and to cause audience members to react with a variety of emotions. This power is both extolled and condemned by viewers, critics, and researchers. From its earliest days, researchers have been trying to describe and understand the influence and educational opportunities of the medium.
Over the years, much research attention has focused on a special segment of the audience: children. Studies have examined issues of both positive and negative learning outcomes from viewing television programs. Findings from these studies have influenced the design of programs, policies, and regulations seeking to maximize benefits and limit the harms of viewing. Three recent books demonstrate that systematic research can inform the approach of educators, parents, and regulators who wish to harness the power of television.
As the most acclaimed children's program on American public television, Sesame Street has been teaching children for over 30 years. The design and implementation of this program are unmatched in the history of educational television. The producers' commitment to a comprehensive plan of research that informs the creative process has been a hallmark of the program since its beginnings in the late 1960s. Shalom Fisch and Rosemarie Truglio's (2001) edited book, "G" is for Growing, examines the scope of research that has been produced for this program over the past 30 years.
Part One provides an in-depth look at the methods researchers have used to advise the show's creators about how to teach using the medium of television. The first chapter places the idea for Sesame Street in its historical context (Palmer & Fisch, 2001). The brief history reminds readers of the educational issues and political necessities that drove Joan Ganz Cooney to embark on the remarkable journey of developing a television program that could provide instruction for preschool children. The chapter describes the underlying belief of the producers that, in order to be successful, research would guide all aspects of the creative process. The task of the program's creators was to define specific curriculum goals that were developmentally appropriate for the target age group and then to design program segments that achieved measurable [earning outcomes.
The next chapter describes the curriculum design process and the key criteria that have guided the producers' choices about content for each program, namely, the educational needs of inner-city children, and the selection of content that can be conveyed most effectively via television (Lesser & Schneider, 2001). The chapter includes an extensive table that highlights the curricular focus for each of the first 30 seasons of the program. Readers can see how the curriculum expanded from an initial concern for letter and number literacy to incorporate ideas of multiculturalism and broader aspects of social development.
The third chapter provides an excellent discussion of the distinction between formative research and traditional academic research (Fisch & Bernstein, 2001). Formative research is defined as research conducted with the specific objective of guiding production decisions. The reader is taken behind the scenes at the Children's Television Workshop (CTW) to witness the connectivity of the research and production divisions. While the success of the collaboration is obvious to anyone who has seen the program, it is also clear that the integrity of the research process has been maintained.
The final chapter in the first part of the book provides case studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of the CTW production model (Truglio, Lovelace, Segui, & Scheiner, 2001). The writers outline specific examples of segments that illustrate how formative research was key to shaping production choices. One example in the area of science described an instance when researchers discovered that a segment about "shadows" was confusing to viewers. …