Backtalk: Cable Responds to Littleton

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Our hearts go out to the families and friends of those wholost loved ones in last week's massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.,where two students committed mass murder, resulting in 15 deaths.

And with so many of our cable, telecommunications and DBSreaders being based in the Denver area, we can only imagine what the impact is like when atragedy of that magnitude strikes in your own backyard.

Media coverage was nonstop, with many parents and educatorsasking how something like this could happen, and why violent, senseless behavior by youngpeople seemed to be on the rise.

No one has the answers, but cable has already grappled withthe issue on several fronts.

This year, the industry celebrates the 10th anniversary ofCable in the Classroom, an industrywide program under which 8,500 local cable companiesand 42 programmers have invested a total of $2 million per week to provide commercial-freeeducational programming to America's schools.

And last week, after the travesty in Littleton, CIC'sphones were ringing off the hook, reported Megan Hookey, the group's managingdirector.

Already, Nickelodeon has said that it is creating a newintro to a Linda Ellerbee special on senseless violence that had been created for aprevious school shooting, and it is now offering free dubs to all schools that want it.

Likewise, Midge Pierce, president of WAM!, theeducational-programming service from Encore, has called CIC, offering her network'shelp to the immediate Denver area, Hookey said.

MTV, she added, has also called, offering to create moreprogramming that grapples with these tough issues for high-school kids.

And it's not only programmers that have been calling,but also cable operators that want to be a part of the solution.

In the wake of the Littleton massacre, they have called,asking how the Critical Viewing Workshop -- a five-year-old venture forged among theNational Cable Television Association, CIC and the PTA -- can broaden its mission.

The Critical Viewing Workshop was formed to help kids makesound media choices, and Hookey's callers this week suggested that the program'sreach should be expanded to include the Internet.

These are all positive, proactive steps. And there are morethings that cable has done and continues to do.

For example, two years ago, Court TV established arelationship with the National Middle School Association to add "Choices &Consequences" to school curricula.

In fact, a week before the horror in Littleton, Court TVwas feted at a Congressional reception for the work that it has done in tackling theproblem of reckless and violent youth behavior.

Court TV's series shows teens the consequences ofunruly behavior, and the approach has had an impact, says Dan Levinson, the service'sexecutive vice president of marketing.

"We have a great program, and Cable in the Classroomis a great conduit, but schools and teachers have to use it," he says, noting thatjust because the programming is available, it's not easy getting teachers to work itinto their course loads.

Levinson says Court TV has taken Choices & Consequencesbeyond CIC, working directly with school districts in Indianapolis and Chicago and localpolice departments.

For example, in Indianapolis schools, police participatewhile teachers air some pretty powerful programming, discussing with students theramifications of their actions.

Of course, programming alone will not solve the growingproblem of teen violence in a society that has become more isolated -- ironically as itbecomes more connected via the Internet.

President Clinton got on the air last week, saying that hisadministration wants this issue addressed in school curricula.

Addressing it is one thing: Solving it is another. But thecable industry can be proud of its 10-year track record in creating a very important bondamong parents, teachers, students and television, as we all grapple with the consequencesof violent behavior.