Camp's over. The kindly lady who looked in on your kids every few hours has gone to a tzimmer in the North. Your babysitter for the past five years just got married. And school's still weeks away. So who's going to mind the kids till then? Why, the television of course. Just as it has for years, the TV will likely become the focus of your kids' lives while you're at work in the coming weeks - that is, when they're not on the computer.
But this doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. For while it's certain that there's a lot of mindless, brain-numbing, product-linked drivel on the airwaves (did somebody say Bratz?), there's some programming worth watching. And in conversations with industry insiders, programming execs, some parents, kids and others, we came away with some clues to entertaining, even (don't say it out loud or the kids will hear you) educational shows that won't have moms and dads gasping when they come home to find the kids glued to the tube.
Our informal survey of various kids' channels and programs this summer yielded some shows parents might even want to watch with their kids, including some left over from the good old days of Israeli television (Mesibat Gan or Hahatul Shmil, anyone?). That said, we also received some warnings about kids watching too much TV, and some suggestions about how to handle the problem. Here's our report from the summertime TV trenches.
First the good news: Having the kids watch TV is "an economical method of being able to leave the kids at home and prevent them from wandering around on the street and getting into trouble," says Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, director of the Israel National Council for the Child. Families who can't afford expensive camps often have no other alternative for entertaining the kids.
And it's not all bad, he says. "There are certain channels and programs from which one can learn. It's much easier for the child to learn from a visual tool than to sit at home filling out workbooks all summer, like we once did," says Kadman. "To the extent that they watch positive content, television can also be a very good teaching tool."
The verdict's still out on whether watching too much will turn your kids' brains to mush or them into serial killers, although an FCC survey issued in April 2007 stated that "there is clear proof that exposure to violence in the media, particularly television, can cause increased violent behavior among children, mainly in the short term." But there's more bad news than good about our kids' TV watching habits, Kadman says.
ONE THING'S certain: Israeli kids definitely have a bit of a couch-potato problem. A survey taken in 2005-2006 found that Israeli children aged 11 watched more TV than any other kids in the world, and came in second when it came to 13 year olds. "Even when something's good for you, but you consume too much of it, it's already problematic," says Kadman. "And we definitely have a problem of overconsumption of TV by kids, certainly during the summer vacation, but not only then."
Watching TV also encourages inactivity. When kids watch some shows, "you sit in front of the TV and not a single muscle moves, not in your head or the rest of your body," says Kadman. "There's also something addictive about it - the more you watch, the more you want to watch. It's like any other addiction, which is bad."
With so much out there, is it any wonder that relationships are strained between parent and child over just how much summer time is wasted on Avatar, King of the Dinosaurs, or even Bob the Builder? Nechama, a divorced Jerusalem mother, says she and her daughter Ayelet, a big fan of kids' shows like Hanna Montana and others, spent a good amount of time arguing over the TV, leading to mom pulling the plug on their cable connection. "I think there's other things to do besides watching television. I was worried that she wouldn't stop," says mom. So now Ayelet watches DVDs instead, or catches up on what she's missed on TV at her father's apartment. "I got addicted to a lot of shows," says Ayelet with a sigh.
Part of the problem is the huge increase in available kids' programming. "Once upon a time there was just an hour a day plus what was on Jordan," says the University of Haifa's Dr. Yariv Tsfati, a lecturer in communications. "Today there's a lot more choice, and a lot more different types of content. As a result, the kids also watch a lot more. There were always different forms of content, and always violence in some of it - cartoons with violence. Today, the violence takes different forms."
Kadman also notes that the violence prevalent on many kids' TV shows "wears the brakes down on the children" when it comes to what they see as acceptable behavior. He worries that "young children watch programming meant for teens, and teens watch programming meant for adults - it's all one big jumble."
EXPOSURE TO programs like Hamordim, which caused quite an uproar in Israel when it was screened a few years back, and other South American telenovelas - not to mention occasional glimpses of actual pornography - also expose young kids to sexual behavior they are not equipped to deal with, the experts say.
Tsfati also notes the issue of increased obesity and attention disorder problems among kids who watch too much TV. "While we don't know a lot abut attention disorder yet, the claim is that exposure to too much TV, especially at a young age, can cause problems."
Society around kids has also changed, he notes. "Parents have less time for their children, and children have less independence to go out and play, so they're cooped up more inside." There, as they sit on the living-room sofa or watch in their own rooms or on computer, the choice basically comes down to channels featuring mostly imports, like Jetix (soon to become the Disney Channel) or Nickelodeon, to more traditional Educational TV and Channel 1, to a hybrid of imports and local shows that speaks mostly Hebrew (HOP, Logi or the Children's Channel). Other programming is also available on VOD, including new shows and old favorites. But whatever your kids are watching, there should be some general ground rules to keep things within reason, say Kadman and Tsfati.
So what's out there? We asked representatives of some of the channels to recommend programming and share their take on where their own channels and kids' TV viewing are headed. Here's what they said.
STATION: ISRAEL TELEVISION (11) Broadcast times: Sunday-Friday, 3:30 to 4:50 p.m.; Saturdays, 7:30 to 11 a.m. With the kids on vacation and school out, Channel 1's "jewel in the crown," its kids news program Hamahadura, is also unfortunately on vacation, as are some other features. That's a shame because as head of children's programming at the financially strapped station Daniella Gardosh says: "In the era of so many channels, children are exposed to limitless information regarding the news." Hamahadura - which will return in the fall - "provides an alternative for kids who think, and allows them to be connected to our reality, to the news and what's going on with them. We have kid hosts and youngsters as correspondents."
Gardosh believes when kids today watch "things that weren't produced for their age," like Channel 2 prime-time TV, "they are absorbing content that's not meant for them."
"With our limited resources, we are trying to offer an alternative for thinking kids, and teach them to watch documentaries which I think is great," she says. Aimed at kids eight to 12, many of these shows are produced in cooperation with the European Broadcasting Union, including Challenges, in which each series deal with a child facing a major challenge in his or her life, or nature programs about animals facing extinction.
Although much of its regular programming is on vacation, Channel 1 is still offering the ever popular and highly regarded Degrassi High, about students in a Toronto high school, weekdays at 4:25. "Serious topics are raised dealing with the lives of the teenagers of today, including the dangers of the Internet, alcoholism, sex and teen violence. "It's a show that presents real problems with courage," says Gardosh.
For younger kids there's Apchi V'Sipur at 3:30, a program aimed at encouraging kids to (dare we say it) read, featuring Itai Segev and other popular young performers, while on Fridays at 4:30, Channel 1 is offering repeats of Service Not Included, the popular musical program from the past which launched many careers, as a salute to Tel Aviv's 100th anniversary. The Saturday morning nostalgia loop includes programs like Mesibat Gan with Yaron London, Hopa Hey, Shalosh, Arba, Hamesh Vahetzi and others.
Gardosh says Channel 1 tries to offer shows with "added value, to give kids a voice, especially on Hamahadura and the documentaries." She dreams of "a public television station for children" built on the model of those that exist in some European countries "that won't be based on ratings and commercial considerations."
STATION: LOGI (81, 48) Broadcast times: From 1:30 to approximately 9 p.m. Its programming may be geared toward kids five to 10, but this was definitely our favorite. It's hard to believe that it comes from the same Noga Communications that presents the Children's Channel aimed at older kids, which we found less entertaining. But Noga also runs Channel 8, and Logi, according to the head of both channels Dganit Atias-Gigi was "meant to be like a Channel 8 for kids."
Purely didactic at first, "about three years ago we changed things a bit and decided to appeal more to kids. We changed the packaging and called it 'Logi - going on an adventure,' which includes learning something, but doing it while having fun. The kids get the education part through the back door," she says.
That held up pretty well in the shows she recommended, especially Metahat La'af (1:30; 5:40), which had youngsters using household items to do experiments or build cool stuff, like wind chimes out of metal objects or a beanbag chair. And you have to love a show where they even make artificial vomit as a gag. Another show, Hamoadon Shel Logi (3:30), also "encourages kids to invent things," she says, while Autoglida (6:45) is a kid's version of The Money Taxi, a trivia contest with ice cream scoops for prizes instead of cash.
We also enjoyed the language show Koah Milulit (2, 6:05) featuring a young girl who turns into a superhero with a pet monkey as her assistant. Each episode features a pair of words used repeatedly and explained in the plot during her battle against evil-doers. Cool. But our favorite was Mahadurat Hashetah, a short filler program in which a pair of goofy cartoon hosts go back to various periods in Israeli or Jewish history and conduct tongue-in-cheek interviews while also supplying factual information. "You can learn and have fun at the same time," is Logi's credo, according to Atias-Gigi, and we couldn't agree more.
STATION: JETIX - soon to be the Disney Channel - (74, 45) Broadcast times: 1 until approximately 11 p.m. Set your watches for September 9, the date when the Jetix kids' channel officially becomes the Disney Channel, if you want, but despite the immense popularity of some of its shows, we weren't that impressed.
"Adults watching a program for kids will always think it's stupid," our 13-year-old argues when we had the nerve to say Hannah Montana (5:55) , one of the station's flagship shows featuring teen star Miley Cyrus as the girl who's a regular teen by day but a rock star at night, left us cold.
Maybe it's the overactive laugh track that roared through Zack and Cody: Suite Life on Deck (5:30) as well, but the latter - featuring twin boys and their teen pals who live on a cruise ship - also set a record for most jokes about garlic after one of the twins made himself a humous sandwich to pass the time while trying to catch a Loch Ness monster-type creature for a science project.
Still, Hannah pulled in over 200 million viewers in 2008 and, along with other shows like The Wizards of Waverly Place (6:20), has Jetix channel programming chief Guy Carny confident the mouse will roar now that Disney, which owned 74 percent of Jetix, is about to completely rebrand to the Disney Channel.
Judging by our TV addict friend Ayelet, at least, this channel's guaranteed a winner. But we found parents presented as too dopey, kids always too smart by half, and the shows too predictable, if energetic and well-produced. And the Hannah episode we caught must have been made pre-Obama, because it made the president of the US out to be a complete buffoon.
"The kid is the focus of the show, and there are many... values, related to that," Carny says in defense of the other programs. "Parents contribute their experience and knowledge." Right. "Each series appeals to a different dream that a child might have," Carny says of the Disney hits. He also promises the station will continue to produce its own programming, like Billy, in which an alien girl becomes part of an Israeli family (4:30 and 7:15).
But then we watched Phineas and Ferb, which we can only call a total delight. Basically the cartoon adventures of two stepbrothers home on summer vacation, they have a pet platypus who's a secret agent and a sister who constantly tries to get them in trouble. The drawings, gags, characters and writing are top-rate, particularly in the episode we caught in which the boys built a submarine - they're always building something to save the day - to help the local bully Buford get his pet goldfish Biff ("I named him after my mother") back. Phineas and Ferb rocks, and saves the day for our vote on the Disney sked. No wonder, creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh met while working on The Simpsons, according to Wikipedia. Don't miss this show, which airs at 4:20 and 10:15 p.m.
Disney offerings, we're told, are checked "to see if they are suitable for children, on an international level." We wonder whether that holds for the level of the laugh track. Nonetheless, current ads on Jetix showing a family watching the Disney Channel together reinforce Carny's message to parents that "they will get a safe, high-quality station, they can rest easy when their kids watch, and... watch together, because they'll all enjoy it." At least Phineas and Ferb, anyway.
STATION: CHILDREN'S CHANNEL (6, 46) Broadcast times: 8:20 a.m. to 10 p.m. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, this station is among the most popular with kids, especially during the summer months, and hosted by what station head Dganit Atias-Gigi says are "a group of young people who would be like big brothers or sister to the children watching."
"A channel just for kids that ran from the morning till the evening was something really revolutionary" at the time it began, she recalls. "It was a station that could make them laugh, entertain them, inform them about things that happened - to welcome them home after school."
Among the hosts who graced its screen were Shai Avivi, Michal Yannai, Gil Sassovet and Yael Bar-Zohar.
When HOP was created for younger kids in 2000, the Children's Channel focused on older kids. Over time, the channel offered its own series like Hashiminiya and The Children of Napoleon Hill, but also drew on imports, particularly from South America, where telenovelas aimed at teens became the rage, particularly Chiquititas, about kids living in an orphanage. "Kids fantasize abut what it would be like to not have parents," says Atias-Gigi. "I think there's that psychological aspect - kids are drawn to such worlds." Gulp.
Currently, she recommends Masa Kayitz, in which a group of boys competes against a group of girls in various tasks and games around the country, with the added incentive of trying to save the Kinneret. It airs daily at 3 and 7:15.
We particularly liked another recommendation, Tituf, based on a French comedy about a youth with a plume of blonde hair who gets into funny situations against the background of Parisian streets (8:30 a.m.), but cared less for Ben-10 (11:15), about a young boy whose magic wristwatch lets him fight off the baddies. And there's always Arthur at 2, which she simply calls "the best series in the world," based on the book about the aardvark who loves to read. But (sigh) also Bratz 2 at 1:15.
The channel has an active Web site tie-in where kids can chat with the hosts, who also visit different cities daily during the summer. They make the kids "feel like there's someone with them all day, and the main thing is our Israeliness... we speak their language," says Atias-Gigi. We just hope she doesn't mind if we preferred the shows on her other channel, Logi.
STATION: NICKELODEON (84, 47) Broadcast times: 2:25 until approximately 9 p.m. Spongebob fans, this is where you drop anchor (5:20). The popular series about the weird denizens of the deep is shown here, and according to Orly Atlas-Katz, Viacom's representative for communications affairs here, it's a whale of a hit. "He speaks to all ages, from four to 50," she explains, noting that the program is offered in both a dubbed version for younger kids and a subtitled one for older viewers. It's also a huge hit on VOD, she says, where "thousands of episodes are watched."
"Nick sees itself as a channel which thinks via the kids, which tries to understand what's important and significant to them," she says. "We put the kids at the center, and see the world through their eyes. We're a fun station, but in a safe place. Our shows are almost all funny, with a sense of humor, but without violence or sex. We make a point of producing shows that are safe and reflect values."
This year the program ran a campaign to encourage children to eat properly and exercise; next year's focus will be on the environment, she says.
The channel, which she claims competes with the Children's Channel for tops in the ratings and is where English-speakers will probably head first if they're not watching Jetix, also produces several locally-made productions, including The Bikini Bottom Show (7 p.m.) to mark Spongebob's 10th anniversary (Bikini Bottom is where Spongebob lives, silly!) and which features in-studio shtick and interviews with celebrities, as well as Haverim B'hava (3:40), based on the movie Back at the Barnyard. Most of the time, however, your kids will be watching the foreign-made stuff like Zoe 101, Carly, Avatar, Drake and Josh and our favorite, Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide (6:10), which reminded us a lot of what middle school was really like back in the day, in which Ned, his two friends Cook and Moseley and a crazy janitor named Gordy supply tips "that will help you survive school," including how to avoid bullies, deal with insane teachers and avoid gross lunches.
Some lessons are for fun, some for real, like how not to procrastinate on school projects (break it down first into smaller tasks, which helps motivation). We particularly liked the gym teacher who explained to two girls, one worried she was too tall, one too small: "You're in middle school. You're works in progress, so calm down about your bodies!" So true.
"Fun in a safe place, without violence or sex," says Atlas-Katz of her station. Our advice: Watch Ned and Spongebob with the kids, but try to keep them from reeling in too many of the other foreign imports.
STATION: EDUCATIONAL TV (23) Broadcast times: Channel 23 broadcasts 24 hours a day, but programs for kids run from 8 to 3:30 most days.
Celebrating its 43rd birthday, Educational TV started off with classes in math, English and nature, recalls program director for children and teens Avinoam Damari. "We were at the forefront of educational TV for many years," he says, but with the introduction of Channel 2 and the cable and satellite networks, competition began in that niche as well.
Still, Damari says the station has remained faithful to its approach. "We try to mix the educational and the entertainment. We did a series not too long ago aimed at helping with the matriculation exam in Hebrew language, but presented it as a sitcom, called 23FM."
He says some of the content on the other channels "wouldn't pass the pedagogical review board of Educational TV... One of the problems is that many of the shows are purchased, and they show children living outside Israel. We try to show children, even young ones, from Israel."
One such offering is Bahatzer Shel Pupik, which airs weekdays at 1:23 and introduces audiences to local youngsters who talk about their own world, followed by the classic Parpar Nehmad series at 3. There are also a variety of animated shows preceding them, like The Wizard of Oz at 2 and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at 2:30 weekdays.
A new Web site, www.23tv.co.il., offers some of the classic Educational TV shows, like Rehov Sumsum, the original Israeli version of Sesame Street, which aired on the station for years before moving over to HOP - where a new season will start this fall which will include Grover and some other new characters, according to a HOP spokeswoman - and other classics, including Zehu Zeh, perhaps one of the first kids' shows that parents watched as well, thanks to the comedic talents of Moni Moshanov, Gidi Gov, Moshe Bar-Aba and others.
"We want to invest a lot in the connection via the Internet," says Damari, so kids "don't just watch and forget, but do something" with what they see.
"We do edutainment," says Damari. "We think that you choose to watch us because you'll learn something." He says private groups fund his productions because "they've found that Educational TV is the only island of sanity, even when it comes to kids' programming, where parents don't have to worry. We don't have shows where kids vie for prizes. We say: 'You don't have to do a long jump to get a prize. With us, the jump they make is with their brains... many children prefer us because we offer a comfortable, cultural niche - it's not cheap entertainment."
His message to parents: "We offer safe TV, enriched and which teaches, but which is still fun."
STATION: HOP! (75, 42) Broadcast times: 8 a.m. to about 8 p.m. Aimed at kids two to eight, HOP tries to build its regular schedule around a child's day, with reminders to head out to school in the early morning and to shower at night. "Everything is done to serve as a tool that helps the parents," says marketing director Sima Toltzis, including clips on brushing teeth or putting on a seat belt.
Summer's more for having fun, though, with popular shows including Abba-Ga-Da (10:45), which features four members of a band and what goes on behind the scenes, with the kids learning something via the song or story, Toltzis says. We enjoyed the one we saw that examined the not-so-great parts about being a couch potato. "It's a program we created to encourage kids to live their lives in a better way, with lots of songs and dance," says HOP VP for content Hilly Horev of the show, which is repeated at 6.
There are classics like Rehov Sumsum (12:10), with Moshe Ufnik (our Oscar the Grouch) in fine form; Bob the Builder, Dora the Explorer and Dafna V'Duvidu, and Yuval Hamebulbal, and US import Yoga Bagaba, also with song and dance and but made by parents, which airs at 5:40 and was recommended by Horev.
But most impressive to us is HOP's An Israeli Childhood project, "where we took old songs and old kids games like five stones, and we added a song to each clip which explains how to play, and then we call on the children to go outside and play. So we are encouraging children to go out and play," says Toltsis.
That also jibes with the fine fillers, like one we caught where a little girl got to learn what it's like to be a life guard on one of Israel's beaches. "A kid who watches HOP won't sit like a golem," says Horev, "because there are so many programs and items where we ask the child to get up and do what's being done on the screen, to make things, to think."
HOP also operates the Luli channel for very small children, from six months to two and a half, "fitting both emotionally and cognitively for children of this age," she says, among them Hatzvaim Shel Keshet, aimed at teaching the youngsters colors - if you even want to expose your kids to TV that young.
"I think that television cannot replace the parents," says Horev of her approach. "We know the kids watch TV, so we try to provide the best television we think they can get," which she says allows HOP to be among the leaders in viewership. She sees kids watching more television via computer or VOD in the future, but for now her aim is to "let the parent know that if he puts his or her child in front of our show, the child won't see anything the parents wouldn't want them to see," or as she puts it: "The best TV for your children."
THERE ARE even more options available, including a slew of stuff on the new Young VOD option on HOT, but even TV critics have to go outside once in a while, and other stations available only on the YES satellite format were not available to this HOT subscriber.
Still, with everything mentioned above, it's hard to not to be confused. Ultimately, while you pray for school to start up again, the best advice is to take an active role in monitoring what your child is watching, and do some channel surfing of your own, Kadman says.
"Most parents don't even know what their kids are watching, and what's on the shows they do watch," he says, "Because there are good shows on TV that one can learn from, and learn from in a fun way."
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