Researchers for Educational Television Programs

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Among the various production companies responsible for educational television programs, there is a vast range in the degree to which research plays a role in these productions. Many producers rely on little or no research input, limited, perhaps, to occasional consulting by educational advisers or a test of the appeal of a pilot episode. By contrast, a smaller number of producers use research more extensively. As Gerald Lesser (1974) has recounted, the latter approach was originated in the late 1960s by the Children's Television Workshop (CTW), the producer of numerous, highly respected educational television series such as Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Square One TV, Ghostwriter, and Dragon Tales.

Under the model of production that has come to be known as the "CTW Model," television producers, educational content specialists, and researchers collaborate closely throughout the life of a television series, from the creation of the original idea through the delivery of the finished program. Production staff (i.e., producers, writers, actors, and so on) are responsible for the physical production of the series. Educational content specialists devise the educational curriculum that sets goals for the series (e.g., to encourage literacy, positive attitudes toward science, or social development among viewers) and help to ensure that the material being produced is educationally sound. Researchers test material hands-on with the target audience (e.g., children of a certain age) to help ensure that the program will be appealing and comprehensible to that audience.

The testing that researchers conduct in support of educational television production falls into two broad categories. "Formative research" is conducted while material is being produced—or even before production begins—to investigate questions that arise out of the production process. These questions include such diverse issues as: Will a particular part of the program be comprehensible and appealing to its target audience? Where on the screen should text be placed to catch the attention of viewers and encourage reading as they watch? Which of several potential designs for the "look" of a character will be most appealing to viewers? What do viewers already know about a particular topic and where do their misconceptions lie, so that subsequent scripts can address these misconceptions directly? The results of these research studies inform subsequent production decisions and revisions of the material being produced. In this way, the voice of the target audience itself becomes a vital part of the production process.

The other type of research that is used is called "summative research." Summative research is conducted after the production of a television series is complete, and is intended to assess the impact of the series on its viewers. The kinds of questions addressed by summative research might include: Are viewers better able (or more motivated) to read and write after watching a television series about literacy? Do viewers become more interested in mathematics or science after watching series about these topics? Are preschool children more likely to cooperate with their peers after watching a television series designed to promote social development? The results of these studies provide a gauge of the success of a series in achieving its educational goals.

A book edited by Shalom Fisch and Rosemarie Truglio (2000) provides many examples of formative and summative research studies conducted to inform the production of Sesame Street over the past thirty years. These kinds of applied research studies bear numerous similarities to the kinds of research that might be conducted in an academic setting on the topic of the interaction of viewers with television. Yet, these two types of research are also very different. One of the chief differences between academic research and applied research in this area lies in their ultimate purposes. For example, the ultimate purpose of academic research on children and television is generally to inform our understanding of children's processing of, interactions with, and reactions to television— as exemplified by a review of the literature by Aletha Huston and John Wright (1997). Although such concerns are also important in applied research on children and television, they are not the end goal of the research; rather, the ultimate purpose in this case is to use that information to inform the design of television programs that will be comprehensible, appealing, and age-appropriate for their target audience. In other words, the implications of the academic research focus on children; the implications of the applied research focus on the television program.

Researchers in the field of applied television research typically come from backgrounds in education, psychology (particularly developmental psychology, in the case of educational programs for children), communications, anthropology, and related areas. Entry-level researchers generally come to their positions with bachelor's or master's degrees. Higher-level staff (e.g., research directors, content directors) generally hold doctorates, although some have master's degrees and extensive prior experience. Unpaid internships are often available in these types of research departments, and can provide valuable experience for those interested in the field.

See also:Children's Comprehension of Television; Sesame Street; Television, Educational.


Fisch, Shalom M., and Truglio, Rosemarie T., eds.(2000). "G" Is for Growing: Thirty Years of Research on Sesame Street. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Huston, Aletha C., and Wright, John C. (1997). "MassMedia and Children's Development." In Handbook of Child Psychology, Vol. 4, eds. William Damon, Irving Sigel, and K. Ann Renninger. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Lesser, Gerald S. (1974). Children and Television: Lessons from Sesame Street. New York: Vintage Books/Random House.

Shalom M. Fisch

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Researchers for Educational Television Programs

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