Every day thousands of local children gather around their television sets to watch cartoons and to participate in meetings of San Diego's least-exclusive clubs. The only membership requirement is that the applicant be a kid.
About 200,000 of the local 12-and-under set are card-carrying members of the KUSI Kids Club, a group formed by Channel 51 three years ago. Organized around the station's daily cartoon shows, the club offers members a chance to take part in a variety of events, giveaways and games staged by the station.
In the television industry, kids clubs are something of a phenomenon as stations seek new ways to address the vast family audience. There are kids clubs in most large cities throughout the country, but nowhere are they as prevalent as in San Diego.
In addition to the KUSI Kids Club, which is one of the largest in the country, the local Fox affiliate, XETV (Channel 6), started a kids club last year as part of the Fox network's national kids club. The XETV Fox Kids Club already boasts more than 40,000 members, and the national Fox club claims to have more than 4 million names on its membership rolls.
Staid, conservative KPBS-TV (Channel 15), the local public broadcasting station, is the latest entrant in this competition for the hearts and memberships of San Diego youngsters. Last month, the station announced the formation of the KPBS Kids Crew--an offshoot of the station's Sesame Street Club--offering members a quarterly newsletter, gifts, coupons and a variety of other benefits.
The KPBS club differs from the other clubs in two key ways: It's not free--it charges a $25 admission fee--and it is grouped around such acclaimed programs as "Sesame Street" and "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood," not cartoons.
But the goals of the KPBS club are basically the same as those of the commercial stations.
"It's a way for us to keep in contact" with the audience, said KPBS spokeswoman Pat Finn. "There is also a big desire to interact with the whole family, and we're trying to position KPBS Kids Crew activities for the whole family."
Interaction is the key, an essential ingredient for all television operations.
"The station closest to the community wins--that's a basic rule of TV," Mike McKinnon, station owner of KUSI.
It's that very closeness that bothers people like Peggy Charren, founder and president of Action for Children's Television. She decries the consumer orientation of some of the clubs, the fact that they are often driven by a desire to promote products.
"It's not about meeting the needs of children, it's all about the needs of advertisers," Charren said.
Partially in response to the increased enthusiasm for targeting youngsters, the Federal Communications Commission in April adopted new regulations that limit the number of advertisements shown during children's programs. The new rules, which go into effect Oct. 1, were designed to encourage educational programming, but they left open the definition of "education programming."
Charren supports the PBS kids clubs across the country because she views them as working directly with quality programming, aspiring to help kids and get them involved with local museums and other educational activities.
"Organizing kids for a meaningful purpose is a good thing, and kids love to belong," she said. "If the purpose is to help kids, to help kids to do better or to feel better about themselves, then the clubs are a great way for TV to make kids' lives better.
"Now that is nothing about what most of these clubs are about," Charren said.
Station executives counter that there is more to kids clubs than commercialism. The clubs are one way for the stations to offer children more than just a series of cartoons, they say. For example, XETV and KUSI link many of their kids club activities to local charities.
The KUSI club, which doesn't allow advertisers to use its mailing list, participates in everything from helping to return lost wallets to raising money for sick children, McKinnon said. Every year, the KUSI club stages a Kids for Kids Toy Drive, which gathers toys for patients of Children's Hospital.
Besides the public service activities, the clubs allow children to participate and to feel as if they belong to something, said KUSI's director of community relations, Barbara Ayers.
"Stations weren't addressing children at all," Ayers said. "They were a forgotten audience."
In a fashion typical of kids clubs, KUSI conducts contests and makes announcements during commercial breaks of its roster of cartoon programs, which range from "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" to "The Jetsons." The most visible spokesman for the kids club is radio disc jockey "Shotgun" Tom Kelly, who sometimes hosts in-studio segments and on-location events.
But kids are the real stars, as volunteers are used on the air to introduce contests and conduct interviews.
"The big mission in education now is empowerment, treating them like adults and letting them make decisions," Ayers said. "I can't tell you how rewarding it is. I hold up a cue card, and they carry the show. I depend on them, and they come through."
In the next few weeks, KUSI is planning to expand its kids club. There will be more live programming, utilizing local comedians and actors in a wide variety of roles. Eventually, the station hopes to offer one hour a day of live skits and audience participation segments to really give the feeling of club meetings during the cartoon programs.
With staffers spending long hours devoted to the project and an outlay of at least $100,000 a year on mailings and other expenses, McKinnon said, the station loses money on the kids club. But KUSI finds its own rewards.
"It ties together the whole concept of the cartoons and public service," McKinnon said. "It loses money, but it generates a lot of enthusiasm around the station."
There is an industry rumor that Fox is preparing to drop the national kids club because of the high overhead required to maintain it. However, even if Fox does drop the national club, Channel 6 will continue with the local club, General Manager Martin Colby said.
"We think we've started something," Colby said. Although he has "yet to see an impact on the ratings," he sees long-term benefits for his station.
"It is a way for a television station to reach out into the community and establish its local identification," Colby said. "Uncle Murph," a clown-like character in a Hawaiian shirt and safari hat portrayed by local actor Mike Guyman, is the front-man for the XETV Kids Club, hosting events and introducing segments on the air.
"Because it is more and more difficult for viewers to distinguish local channels, when a station doesn't have a strong news personality it is difficult for a station to get identified in a positive way," Colby said.
The Fox Kids Club grew out of one of Fox owner and media magnate Rupert Murdoch's entrepreneurial brainstorms. Murdoch wanted to produce a magazine targeted for kids. To help get it started, he offered it to Fox stations free.
The publication, Totally Kids, sparked the formation of the Fox kids clubs. Totally Kids didn't work as an independent magazine, but General Foods now picks up the tab. Loaded with games, letters, and coupons and recipes for General Foods, the magazine is sent out nationally to members, once quarterly, with several pages localized for the Fox affiliate.
The Fox magazine, and its abundance of ads, in particular, infuriate Charren of Action for Children's Television.
"The problem is that, instead of using kids club magazines to help them to learn something, or to help them to read, the goal, the attention and time is all focused on using the magazine to sell to them. And that makes me sick," Charren said.
XETV's Colby counters that a kids club can be a valuable tool to communicate with children, from telling them not to talk to strangers to offering them free pizza for picking their favorite teachers, in a medium they understand and enjoy.
"We try to involve the kids in positive behavioral activities," Colby said.
Colby points out that the station doesn't make money from the kids club, although he acknowledges that there are self-serving rewards. To Colby and other station executives, kids clubs are the ultimate form of long-term planning. After all, today's kids are tomorrow's adult viewers.
"There are 200,000 kids carrying our call letters in their wallets, and I kind of like that," McKinnon said.
The KUSI Kids Club "meets" from 6 to 9 a.m. and from 2:30 to 5 p.m., weekdays; 6 to 8:30 a.m. on Saturdays and from 6 to 10 a.m. on Sundays. The XETV Fox Kids Clubs is structured around cartoons from 6 to 8:30 a.m. and 2 to 5 p.m., weekdays; 6 to 9:30 a.m., Saturdays; and 6 to 7 a.m., Sundays. KPBS's childrens programming, with the addition of new programs that begin on Sept. 30, airs from 7 to 9:30 a.m. and from 3 to 5:30 p.m., weekdays.