A Bear on a Unicycle: Educational?

The Federal Communications Commission is being urged to require broadcasters to air at least three hours a week of educational programming for children, the theory being that the industry won't police itself.

This is part of an ongoing movement to put more information into kids' TV.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) wants it. He's the ranking minority member of the Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and finance.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Action for Children's Television founder Peggy Charren want it, too. In fact, 82% of adults in the United States want it, according to a recent poll commissioned by the Center for Media Education in Washington.

With that in mind, it was time to check in with a couple of new kids' series to see how well they were educating their young viewers about animals. One of these, "Wild Animal Games," airs at 4 p.m. weekdays on the Family Channel, the Virginia Beach, Va.-based cable network operated by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson. The other is "Really Wild Animals," a National Geographic Society series airing at 11:30 a.m. Saturdays on CBS.

The executive producer of the Family Channel's "Wild Animal Games" is Woody Fraser, creator of ABC's "Good Morning America" and "That's Incredible!" The show's resident expert is Mark Biancaniello, who runs Michael Jackson's zoo at Neverland ranch.

Co-hosted by 20-year-old Ryan Seacrest and a grinning chimp named Eddie, "Wild Animal Games" is described in its press kit as wedding education and entertainment by presenting a "fun-filled, high-energy game show combining animal facts with wild and crazy contests that challenge children and their parents to interact with professionally trained animals."

It's a good way to learn about animals, all right. Animals in captivity.

Kids at home and in the studio get to watch animals in their natural habitats, too, the press kit promises. Not only that, but "while they're playing polo on donkeys or having unicycle races against a Siberian bear," they are also "learning about animal behaviors and lifestyles." Especially the behaviors and lifestyles of polo-playing donkeys and unicycle-riding bears. "For example," the press kit continues, "a demo of a Siberian bear showing his skills on a unicycle leads into a unicycle race between the bear and the kids."

Why, more than merely educational, that's incredible!

And there's more. "How could anyone not want to compete in the 'Elephant Car Wash'?" asks the press kit. "In this game, one team lathers up one side of a guest elephant, Tai (star of Disney's 'Dumbo Drop'), with yellow suds, the other team lathers up her other side with red suds. The first team to wash off their half wins. The kids use hoses, while Tai helps out with her trunk."

Just as elephants in the wild wash off their red and yellow suds, presumably.

That is educational.

Yet let's be honest. The above hype was written by professional publicists. The test: Could the show be as educational on the screen as it was in its press kit?


Focusing on big cats, last Thursday's episode, for example, opened in front of its kiddie studio audience with Ryan carrying a young leopard on his shoulders. Then a little boy rode in, cowboy-style, on Joseph, a 525-pound male lion and veteran of movies and commercials, who was accompanied by his trainer.

Then a black leopard gave a leaping exhibition. The hyper Ryan almost jumped out of his own skin: "Oh, he's up! Yes! He hits the platform! Now they're gonna move it from 10 feet to 12 feet! That was so smooth!"

As if that weren't educational enough, it was now time for the Leopard Spot Pop Game, with two teams of kids with dart-loaded blow guns seeing which could pop the most balloons attached to a giant replica of a leopard. Especially educational was the symbolism of shooting blowguns at a cardboard leopard.

Then Eddie attempted to play the bongos. Then came those animals in the wild, a minute's worth in a fleeting video of lions with a voice-over by Charles Fleischer ("Roger Rabbit"), first in manly tones for a male, then in falsetto for a female: "I'm the female, and I do about all the work." This and a visit in the studio by a young cheetah were the basis for a quickie quiz about the cats' behavior.

Next came a water game, with cutaways of a grinning Eddie in swim trunks, sunglasses hanging from his neck.

The show ended with Ryan addressing Joseph the lion, who was perched atop Ryan's car in a parking lot. "Hey, how are ya, man?"

Happily, Joseph did not reply in Fleischer's voice or ride off on a unicycle.

Meanwhile, CBS' "Really Wild Animals" isn't all that fresh, due to its heavy reliance on stock footage from National Geographic. But at least the high-quality pictures are of animals in their natural habitats, not show-biz performers forced to live their lives at the behest of humans. And the weekly series does make a real stab at informing kids (the target audience is 5 to 11) about the natural world around them, via an animated globe character named Spin.

The really wild voice of Spin is Dudley Moore, who, despite overheating at times, projects a liveliness that fits the show's kid-aimed agenda, which also includes breezy music videos.

Episode 1 covered the tropical rain forests of Central and South America, and the layers upon layers of creatures in them--from piranhas to leaf cutter ants to bats to ocelots "that eat a lot." Although there was nothing here that was gory or potentially alarming to young children, "Really Wild Animals" neither settles for stereotypes nor shrinks from showing predation.

The second episode was about Antarctica and its variety of undersea life and penguins, seals and whales. Noting how the humpback was hunted to near extinction, the show even makes a pitch to "save the whales."

On "Wild Animal Games," they'd be riding them.

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