PBS Kids vs. Nick Jr.

The best PBS shows for children are better than Disney Jr. and Nick Jr., writes Fordham’s Mike Petrilli in In praise of PBS Kids. He thinks the government subsidy makes the difference.

The best PBS shows in my view—and my elder son’s!—actually teach something. Not something vague like “reasoning skills” but something concrete like science! Yes, his favorite shows are Sid the Science Kid and Wild Kratts, a very clever program about wildlife. At four and a half, he can’t read yet, but he can learn a ton about our world—and with his curiosity on overdrive, he’s eager to learn and learn and learn.

Other PBS shows are strong on content knowledge too, especially Dinosaur Trains and The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot about That. Others focus on teaching decoding and comprehension strategies—these stem from the early 2000s and reflect the Bush administration’s obsession with early reading — namely Word World, Super Why, and Word Girl. And the line-up is rounded out with several pleasant if content-free offerings that aim to teach character and the like (Arthur, Caillou, Clifford, and so forth).

Nick Jr. offers The Backyardigans, which is “brilliant.” He’s heard Disney’s Gaspard and Lisa is great for vocabulary. But he blames Nick for “the poisonous Sponge Bob Square Pants and the hugely annoying Dora the Explorer — the crack cocaine of children’s television.”

PBS shows are more educationally sound because “the Department of Education’s Ready to Learn program provides upwards of $30 million a year to develop high-quality programs” and related web sites and games, Petrilli writes.

In an e-mail discussion thread, parents and grandparents agreed that Caillou is loathesome.

As a good libertarian, Neal McCluskey thinks government should stay out of the TV business and questions whether “at-risk” kids watch PBS shows.

MATCH founder Michael Goldstein, the father of a four-year-old, doesn’t think PBS shows are “more educationally sound.”

1. Nick Jr shouldn’t be accountable for the fact that its sister channel, Nick, has SpongeBob.

That’s like holding Disney Channel accountable for John Carter. Or dinging Curious George because PBS has pledge drives. No relationship.

2. I’m not that impressed with PBS Dinosaur Train on dino content. Nick Jr. Dino Dan is at least its equal.

3. PBS Cat In The Hat has a lot of knowledge? What are you smoking there in Northern Virginia? It has Martin Short. Case closed.

4. I agree that Nick Jr Backyardigans is amazing — if that ran on PBS would you argue that it’s only possible b/c of the subsidy?

5. I agree PBS Kids has good science shows for kids. But

a. Since they do, Nick Jr presumably looks for the niche PBS doesn’t fill. One is multicultural characters that 3 and 4 year olds seem to like — Ni Hao Kai Lan, Little Bill, Dora, Diego.

b. If PBS didn’t produce the science shows, what makes you think that Nick Jr wouldn’t?

Nick Jr runs Team Umizoomi. It’s all about math. “Geo” and “Mili” are the lead characters, and most of the show is finding patterns. Why wouldn’t they do the same if PBS weren’t already on the scene?

It’s been many years since I watched Sesame Street with my preschooler in the pre-Dora era, so I have no dog in this hunt.

My three-year-old granddaughter has abandoned Elmo for Disney’s Peppa Pig. She now refers to herself as “Julia Pig” and calls her little sister “George Pig” after Peppa’s little brother. She’s picking up Peppa’s British accent, especially when she says, “Let’s give it a go!” or answers the phone, “Julia Pig speaking.”

About Joanne


  1. As a mother of three children who soak up shows when allowed by us (no TV, media viewing is done on the computer in the family room as permitted), Dinosaur Train, Martha Speaks, Wild Kratts, Avatar, Backyardigans, and Go, Diego, Go! are the all-time favorites.
    PBS Kids is doing something right. It has some engaging, high-quality shows and good websites to support the fans of those shows. We don’t watch any of their non-educational shows, though.
    Nick Jr. has a few good shows, too, but its website is less inviting (too many ads). We actively fight against showing our kids Yo Gabba Gabba (annoying!) and Ni Hao, Kai Lan (in modeling social challenges, it inadvertently causes my children how to be whiny and fight as they mimic the characters–it’s not worth learning a few Chinese words), and they know who Sponge Bob is but have never watched the show.

  2. My kids (6 and 3) never really liked Sesame Street, but they love the clips from the old ones that I grew up with. At 3-4, they liked Super Why. Sid and Dinosaur Train have been popular at times, and The Cat in the Hat is still popular. The Cat is definitely educational, and it ties in to a series of books that has a lot more content than the show. My kids like the show, but love the books (my 3 year old recently told her grandma that plants make oxygen). They watch a few Disney Jr shows (Jake and the Neverland Pirates, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse) for fun. I won’t do shows with fast-paced animation, so I like the relative calmness of these shows.

    I do agree that it’s likely subsidizing the TV viewing of the upper and middle class, if marketing of associated products is any clue. Discount/less expensive stores are full of clothes/toys with characters that my kids don’t recognize, but other kids seem to know them. My biggest complaint with the educational/good citizen shows is that they seem to make so few each year. My kids will find a show that they like, and within a month or 2 they’ve seen the entire season of shows, so they get bored and move on. Then when new episodes do come out, we’re not looking for them. My kids are allowed a small amount of daily TV, but they won’t watch the same episodes too many times.

  3. Cranberry says:

    TV isn’t educational.

    Phineas & Ferb ftw.

    • Obi-Wandreas says:

      My daughter got bored with Sesame Street at the age of 18 months, already knowing her entire alphabet and being able to count to 20. Apart from her P&F addiction, she also is a big fan of Avatar(The Last Airbender as well as Legend of Korra), Dora (who teaches problem solving and planning), as well as Star Wars:The Clone Wars and G.I. Joe (original 1985 version).

  4. TV is entertainment. If they call Sponge Bob Squarepants the crack of kids’ tv, let’s just remember why they call crack “crack” in the first place. Because it’s crack-deli-ious.

  5. crack-deli-icious.

    Too much tv has impaired my phonics. Because it is entertainment.

  6. Why can’t little kids watch and enjoy all three, making their own choices on their favorite shows?

    I loved Sesame Street, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, 3-2-1 Contact, and Fraggle Rock as a wee tot. Ever Google Video / YouTubed Seasame Street as an adult? I had no idea that so many celebrities and otherwise famous people have made appearances and cameos on that show in the last several decades. Patrick Stewart helping the Count count to 10 (“Get in line, Number One!” = Epic!

  7. Everybody have fun tonight,
    everybody Shang Tsung tonight.

  8. I still remember my mother rolling her eyes when, back in the early-mid 60s, I told her about the funny new show I had just discovered called “The Three Stooges.”