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Sunny days for online kids' shows?

Industry Standard

(IDG) -- Heralding such examples as Sesame Street and The Magic School Bus, industry executives and children's advocates who gathered Tuesday at Stanford University for the conference "Supporting Children in the Digital Village" suggested that the federal government might have a legitimate role in subsidizing and promoting educational programming for youngsters on the Net.

Keynote speaker William E. Kennard, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, expressed pleasant surprise that executives in Silicon Valley, given its libertarian, anti-regulation reputation, would offer a warm reception to his vision of "the PBS model" for improving youth content online.

Children Now President Lois Salisbury, who was seated next to Kennard, told participants in closing remarks that while listening to others speak, "We were here whispering, 'People are saying they trust the government more than they trust the private sector!' "

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Children Now, a nonprofit based in Oakland, Calif., which bills itself as "a nonpartisan, independent voice for children," sponsored the roundtable discussion among a group that Salisbury described as "the elders of the digital village."

Participants included executives such as Yahoo CEO Tim Koogle and Nickelodeon COO Jeff Dunn, as well as academics and directors of advocacy groups and foundations. The event was Webcast live by ExciteAtHome.

At a private lunch after the conference, Salisbury said, a number of participants agreed to seek foundation funding for a collaborative effort focusing on the Internet. The Public Broadcasting System, she noted, grew out of a similar effort that initially was funded by the Carnegie Foundation.

Ways to improve children's offerings on the Net was a central theme in a wide-ranging discussion that also touched on the digital divide and parental online security concerns.

In his brief opening remarks, Kennard reflected on the dramatic changes in media since his own childhood in the 1960s, when TV was dominated by three networks, and his mother controlled his viewing habits. Given the vast content available online, he said, the industry should work with the government to find ways to help parents monitor their children's Internet consumption.

Dunn emphasized that while Nickelodeon has "made what's good for kids a good business" in cable television, the Internet industry is still trying to figure out how to achieve profitability. "We have to figure out how to make money from this," Dunn says.

Although discussion participants included representatives from PBS Online and Sesame Workshop, there was consensus that among the thousands of children-oriented educational Web sites, none reflect the popular appeal and quality of Sesame Street, Blue's Clues and The Magic School Bus, all of which emerged from PBS.

"A lot of investment is in sports and entertainment," which are more apt to turn a profit more quickly," says new-media venture capitalist Nancy Pfund. For educational programming, she added, the public "does not trust in a private-sector brand as much as PBS."

Among the foundations participating were the philanthropic arm of Hewlett-Packard, the John and Mary R. Markle Foundation and the George Lucas Education Foundation.

Charles H. House, executive VP of Intel-owned Dialogic, said the tech industry is increasingly willing to support educational programs, particularly those that address math and science.

"I think that's an offer I'm making," says House.

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