Grand Programming Alliances

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There’s a new engine driving the creation of cable programming for the classroom, and it can be described in one word: partnerships. Whether it involves The Weather Channel teaming with the U.S. Postal Service to create a curriculum about clouds, or Bravo working with scores of cable operators and Camp Broadway to build a theater experience for kids, collaboration is helping to boost the number of cable programs and initiatives being made available to the classroom.

A clear trend toward using educational initiatives as affiliate-relations tools is also increasing the number of programs. Networks that once worked directly with schools or through Cable in the Classroom now are allied with local systems for at least some of their educational programs. Operators are often only too happy to find another way to reach out to potential customers.

EDGY BUT APPROPRIATE

Court TV partnered with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and Internet safety advocates I-Safe America on the network’s newest educational initiative, “Al Roker Investigates: Katy.com.” At the heart of the initiative is an hourlong special of the same name, which premiered in July and will run again in October and in the network’s lineup of copyright-cleared telecasts for classrooms. It tackles the topic of Internet predators and the threats they pose to children online. Based on the story of a high-achieving 13-year-old who was ensnared by a pedophile she encountered in a chat room, the special features a hair-raising scene in which a policeman poses as a child, albeit one with a very racy vocabulary, online. “Within minutes, four pedophiles are in touch with him,” says Lee Tenebruso, Court TV’s vice president of corporate affairs and education.

In addition to bringing extra publicity and credibility to the project, NCMEC and I-Safe produced related classroom materials and provided tips for parents and kids. “Everything was age-appropriate and available online,” Tenebruso says.

Court TV will promote Katy.com to teachers as well as parents, but the effort is part of a wider campaign to extend the reach of the network’s educational fare beyond middle and high schools. Beginning this fall, Court TV will enlarge its Choices and Consequences curriculum, traditionally about young people and the criminal justice system, to include materials for college and law students, as well as adults in general. The network realized the potential of reaching out to adults last year when it got a big reaction from attorneys in the audience during local screenings of its original film, Chasing Freedom, about the difficulties of gaining political asylum in the U.S. “These issues are as important to adults as they are to kids,” Tenebruso says.

Much of the outreach to adults occurs at Courttv.com, where video clips help drive home points made in reading materials.

For Bravo, a partnership with Camp Broadway allowed the network to expand what was a much smaller initiative into a national effort to restore theater arts to communities.

When NBC acquired Bravo two years ago, it decided to overhaul the “Bravo On With the Show” initiative. Each year that project helped three cable systems hold local theater workshops for kids and then stage a play for parents, civic leaders, advertisers and business leaders.

This year, as many as 60 cable systems could participate in the new program, up from 44 last year. On With the Show’s centerpiece is a contest that selects 50 kids to travel to New York with their parents, spend three days learning about theater and then stage a live musical and comedy revue. Cable operators distribute materials to schools and local arts programs, alerting them to the contest, which comes with related classroom curriculum.

Each student who wins the contest also receives a $1,000 grant for his or her school or organization, plus a list of suggestions for how to use it to improve the theater program. “We didn’t want to just leave the markets after the contest was over, and the grants allow us more of an ongoing presence,” says Erica Conaty, vice president of marketing for NBC Universal Cable.

Some new initiatives are as promotional as they are educational. The Postal Service is partnering with The Weather Channel to launch a new series of stamps picturing clouds. Timed for a debut during National Stamp Collecting Month in October, the stamps’ unveiling cried out for a location with a “weather intensive” focus, says Carolyn Jones, TWC senior manager of education marketing.

When Boston’s historic Blue Hill Observatory emerged as the chosen locale, managers at Comcast Corp.’s system in that city were happy to jump on board.

The Cloudscapes curriculum, designed to teach kids in grades 3-5 how to read clouds for clues about pending weather, will be sent to more than 200,000 educators on the Postal Service’s mailing list.

'HOMETOWN’ LEARNING

A similar promotional spin comes with “My Hometown,” a new initiative being launched this year by Travel Channel and Time Warner Cable. At its heart is a contest that awards the national grand prize winner a $5,000 college scholarship, an appearance on the Travel Channel and a school visit by Travel Channel on-air personality Tracy Gallagher.

The curriculum includes standards-based lesson plans and online materials helping kids to find out about their town’s geographic location, history and local culture and demographics. Students can also chat online or via e-mail with a Travel Channel producer, who will advise them on producing their contest entries: 30-second commercials about their towns.

As with Court TV’s Katy.com and a growing number of educational initiatives, Travel Channel’s My Hometown will also include a contest for grownups, who will compete to create the best promotional slogan for their town.

The move to include operators in educational programs began in earnest last year, when Cable News Network expanded a broadband demonstration dubbed Behind the Scenes it had created for Cox Communications Inc. into a national event.

While last year’s Behind the Scenes focused on coverage of the Iraq War, this year’s event offers high-school students an in-depth look at how the network covers the 2004 elections. The four-week curriculum of classroom and online activities culminates Oct. 18 with a live broadband demonstration in which students in 20 cities ask questions of CNN anchors, reporters and production and engineering professionals, who will appear together via streaming video.

The growth in such “edu-promos” hasn’t cut down on the amount of traditional educational programming from cable networks.

'AMERICA VOTES’

CNN Student News, for example, has added “America Votes 2004,” a CD-Rom full of multimedia teaching activities about primaries and caucuses, national party conventions, political polls, the Electoral College and Inauguration Day. Teachers can order it from CNNstudentnews.com.

Also new from CNN Student News is “Getting to Know the Issues,” a series of special political packages telecast each Tuesday as part of the 10-minute daily newscast for students, aired at 3:12 a.m. on CNN Headline News and available in streaming video at CNNstudentnews.com.

Discovery Networks U.S., meanwhile, is airing new installments of Champions of the Wild, a series of short programs about wild animals launched last year as a companion to Assignment Discovery, an extensive lineup of science and history programs that have been shortened and punched up with reactions from students. Discovery will also work with cable operators to honor the winners of its annual Young Scientist Challenge. First-, second- and third-prize winners will be honored by special science assemblies, presented by Discovery and the local cable operator, in the schools of winning students.

TWC is also making available to teachers its half-hour Forecast Earth specials along with lesson plans and related materials. Included in the lineup is this fall’s new episode on the rising problem of air pollution in the U.S. The network is also adding a virtual tour of its forecast center to Weatherclassroom.com, with a section on meteorological careers both on and off camera.

Several new documentaries will be available, along with supporting materials, to teachers this fall. Among them are ESPN25, a package of 32 hours of programming about sports developments during the last quarter century. Court TV and Sundance Channel will offer four half-hour documentaries on the First Amendment. The networks hired well-known documentary filmmakers and gave them free rein to approach the issues as they saw fit. Mario Van Peebles, for example, will consider the firing of New Jersey Poet Laureate Amiri Baraka, while Bob Balaban will use the comedy of Lenny Bruce as a springboard to discuss contemporary censorship.

“The First Amendment is an issue on everybody’s mind, given the discussion of the Iraq war and how far TV should go in showing pictures coming from it,” says Court TV executive vice president and chief operating officer Art Bell.

In its hour-long special, Save Our History: Jamestown, The History Channel will explore some of the new findings emerging from the archeological dig at the first English settlement in the New World. Scientists there recently uncovered the post-holes of the original fort, a find that reversed a long-held assumption that most of the structure’s remains were buried beneath the James River.

“There’s a lot of detective work involved in figuring out what might have happened in the past,” says Libby O’Connell, History vice president and historian in residence. “It’s fun for students to learn how much of a puzzle the past can be.”

The special is being produced in segments so it can be easily divided up for use in the classroom, O’Connell says.

'COOK WITH KIDS’

In part because of the growing possibilities for co-promoting with cable operators, several networks are creating educational programs for the first time this year. Food Network’s “Cook With Your Kids Week” kicks off Oct. 3 with recipes and tips from celebrity chefs Emeril Lagasse, Tyler Florence, Bobby Flay and Rachael Ray. Sister network HGTV will also weigh in with specials on Hispanic Heritage Month, Black History Month and historic preservation.

Hallmark Channel, meanwhile, is readying “Tell Me a Story”, an initiative that will capitalize on the network’s filmed adaptations of literary classics, such as this fall’s recreation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein starring Donald Sutherland and William Hurt. There’s a possibility that the network will pilot the program with a cable operator this Spring, but it won’t be ready to roll it out nationally before next fall, according to spokesperson Brandi Phillips.

“It’s so preliminary, there isn’t much we can talk about,” she says. “Ideally, it will be a great fit for our affiliates.”

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