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The good news is that watching some of these shows can actually be healthy for children. Kathryn Montgomery, president of a leading advocacy group called the Center for Media Education, welcomes the new programming. "When they do it well," she says, "it really can educate kids. There's research on it that shows that it does enhance learning." Like their predecessors, the new shows attempt to foster the social, moral and cognitive development of their viewers. Each episode usually imparts a specific lesson, whether it be about friendship or lying or sibling rivalry or the risk of going down the drain with the bathwater. Psychologists and educators serve as consultants (this has become a small industry) and review scripts closely. Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint advises a syndicated show called The Crayon Box and says he once objected to the phrase "independent strong-willed woman" because he thought that, in the context, it came across as something negative. The words were taken out.

No one can object to the content of the new shows; it's the style of some of them that raises questions. Experts say that preschoolers are best served by shows that are slow-paced, repetitive and simple. Daniel Anderson, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has written extensively on children's television, has been a consultant on several shows and has developed guidelines for preschool programming. "The most fundamental principle is, make it understandable," he says. "It takes a lot of work to get writers and producers to understand what preschoolers are capable of digesting. And the second principle is that any type of narrative structure should be as linear as possible. Also you should not overburden the child with a juxtaposition of visual images and sounds." Finally, Anderson says, a preschooler's daily life is full of things that are new, so shows should not reach for novelty.

Many of the new shows seem to have been created according to very different expectations. Take Channel Umptee-3, which is intended to appeal to children as young as two. The premise is that an ostrich, a snail and a fantasy creature called Holey Moley are operating an underground television station. Old black-and-white film footage is spliced into the show, and static often appears as if a channel were being changed. "This is a show I wish I had as a kid," says Jim George, who created Channel Umptee-3. "I thought, What if there was a show put on by a bunch of wildly enthusiastic people who start their own TV channel? Of course, the whole world is against them." George has a lot of imagination, and Channel Umptee-3 can sometimes be funny, but is it really right for preschoolers?

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