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New offerings from PBS and Nick Jr./CBS
Better Saturday competition seen for the kids audience

Maurice Sendak's Seven Little Monsters, back row, will make their TV debut with, left to right: Marvin the Tap-Dancing Horse (and boy pal Eddy), Elliot Moose, Timothy, Corduroy and tiny George Shrinks. (Image copyright 2000 Nelvana Ltd., in trust. All rights reserved.)

Originally published in Current, July 31, 2000

By Karen Everhart Bedford

In a bid to expand its children's franchise into an increasingly competitive daypart, PBS on Sept. 30 will launch Bookworm Bunch, a block of six new animated series slated for Saturday mornings.

Produced by Toronto-based Nelvana Communications, Bookworm Bunch is PBS's first offering of original children's fare for weekends — when stations traditionally program their own selection of how-to programs and other fare. PBS created the block as a distinctive alternative to the rock 'em-sock 'em, boy-oriented fare aired by other broadcast networks on Saturdays.

"It's a tremendous thing that PBS is doing — something that's almost revolutionary — in presenting American children with an alternative to what I call 'toxic television,'" said Rosemary Wells, author of Timothy Goes to School, one of six children's books to be adapted for TV in the new PBS Kids block.

But Bookworm Bunch faces some unanticipated competition from CBS and its Viacom-owned cousin, Nickelodeon. CBS in mid-June announced that it plans to air Nick Jr. on CBS, a three-hour block of Nickelodeon preschool shows, beginning Sept. 16. Some station programmers, wary of going head-to-head with Nick Jr.'s most popular shows on Saturdays — or unable to clear three hours of Saturday a.m. airtime&151;are opting to schedule Bookworm Bunch on Sundays.

The Saturday block will deliver six of the eight new entries coming to the PBS Kids line-up this fall. Caillou, a half-hour daily series that combines animation, puppetry and live-action, debuts Sept. 4 in a special Labor Day marathon, along with Clifford the Big Red Dog, an daily animated series based on the popular book series by Norman Bridwell. PBS is heavily promoting its slate of new children's titles as an unprecedented line-up of new shows.

"Trying new things"

The books adapted for the PBS Kids Bookworm Bunch really "represent the best of children's literature," said John Wilson, senior PBS programming v.p., and are in sync with parents' trust and expectations for PBS. Families are already familiar with Maurice Sendak, William Joyce, Don Freeman, and other featured authors because they're already reading these books to their kids.

Each of the shows in Bookworm Bunch offers a pro-social curriculum, which is "most appropriate" for the preschool audience, said Wilson. "If you went to a preschool with three-year-olds, the teachers aren't drilling them on their ABCs and numbers," he explained. Instead, preschool curriculums are "about sharing, playing dress-up and make-believe, with free play to interact together and function as part of a group."

In the Bookworm Bunch, children will see "stories and characters that are engaging, fun and entertaining," but they'll also walk away with insights on how to deal with problems in their own lives, he added.

PBS is "definitely trying new things" with the Bookworm Bunch block, acknowledged Wilson. "We're bringing new content to a new daypart, we're working with new children's authors, and we're doing it in a new way" that packages the programs into a "seamless television experience."

Corduroy segments begin and end PBS's Bookworm Bunch block. (Image copyright 2000 Nelvana Ltd./Sichuan Top Animation Co. Ltd.)

Fifteen-minute installments of Corduroy, the well-known title by Don Freeman, will bookend the beginning and end of each Bookworm block, so that all subsequent shows begin at 15- or 45-minutes past the hour. After Corduroy, the programs will air in the following sequence: Elliot the Moose by Andrea Beck, Wells' Timothy Goes to School, Sendak's Seven Little Monsters, George Shrinks by Joyce, Marvin the Tap-Dancing Horse by Betty and Michael Paraskevas, and the concluding segment of Corduroy.

"To encourage kids to stay for the entire block of programs, we wanted to start the new television shows on the quarter hour," said Toper Taylor, president of Nelvana Communications, during a presentation to the television critics this month.

"Our intention is to make Saturday mornings safe and educational" and position PBS's new block as "a place that encourages kids to read," said Taylor in a recent interview. Those "powerful messages" are "clearly secondary" to commercial broadcasters. "Kids in this country, especially younger kids, need a place to go that is a nurturing environment."

"PBS is, I think, continuing to fulfill its historical commitment to bringing quality, safe, educational, and somewhat intellectual programs to kids across the country."

"Hopefully, it will be one show that moms and dads and kids will watch together," said William Joyce, author of George Shrinks. "There's so much of that stuff that I can't sit through."

PBS plans an aggressive promotional strategy to publicize Bookworm Bunch, including coverage by major parenting and women's magazines, and primetime promos that encourage adults to set a calmer tone for Saturday morning viewing by clicking to Bookworm Bunch for their kids. Authors of the original books also appear in spots that promote reading to kids.

Public TV has "never had so much ammunition as we do this fall," to promote its children's service, said Russ Peotter, director of marketing and development at Maine PBS, during a promo session at the network's Annual Meeting in June.

ABC and CBS clean up their acts

;While a Saturday morning kids' block is new for PBS, it's a convention of commercial broadcast TV. With the growth of upstart broadcast networks in recent years, and the FCC's higher standards for educational children's TV, kids and their parents have gained a wider choice of shows to watch on Saturday.

WB and Fox both program the boy-oriented violent fare that makes many parents uneasy, but Disney-owned ABC has established in its One Saturday Morning block a "selection of wonderful series" that "tend to be absolutely nonviolent," said David Kleeman, executive director of the American Center for Children and Media.

This fall, the ABC block will run from 8:30 to 10:30 with interstitials starring Lion King wisecrackers Timon and Pumbaa investigating "scientific occurrences," according to the network. ABC will also debut a new series starring Buzz Lightyear of Toy Story fame, in the timeslot that follows One Saturday Morning.

In September, CBS's new line-up directly will challenge PBS's bid to carve a niche for its children's service on Saturdays. Nick Jr. on CBS will give a network platform to PBS's strongest rival in the kidvid arena, bringing Nickelodeon's most popular series to a wider broadcast audience. The CBS block will be "big competition for PBS," noted Kleeman.

The line-up includes Blue's Clues, and Nelvana-produced Little Bear and Franklin, among other series. But the network will maintain its two-hour morning news block, sending most young viewers elsewhere at 9 a.m. and resuming the Nick Jr. line-up at 11.

Nick Jr. on CBS will air commercial-free this season and feature one new series, Dora the Explorer. The three-year programming agreement between CBS and Nick includes on-air cross-promotion between the network and cable channel, and joint development of new content.

With CBS serving kids on Saturday morning, some public TV station programmers will move local broadcasts of Bookworm Bunch to Sundays. "There's less competition for animated children's programs on Sundays than Saturdays," said Ron Bachman, program director at WGBH in Boston. Bookworm Bunch will have a "better chance" of gaining an audience in Boston by airing on Sunday. The 12 client stations of Florida Public Broadcasting's program service also opted to air Bookworm Bunch on Sundays, according to Mike Seymour, president. The stations would have had to preempt popular how-to fare to go up against CBS with the new block, and most of them already do "very well" with Sunday morning kiddie shows, he explained.

Others will go with PBS's recommended Saturday airing. "There will always be some kind of competition," said Tom Doggett, v.p. of programming at Oregon Public Broadcasting. "We need to do what we do best."

"I think it's worth going head-to-head," agreed Tom Holter, p.d. at KTCA in Twin Cities. "I don't know that CBS has a track record with the two- to five-year old audience." He also questioned how effectively CBS would promote the new block.

CBS's record with Saturday children's fare has been spotty. In 1998-99, it acquired an exclusive three-hour block of programs from Nelvana, which included the debut season of Franklin. But the network encountered "difficulties with its affiliates" over the block, and "didn't understand how to market to kids," recalled Taylor. Nelvana later sold Franklin to Nick Jr., and it became one of the cable channel's most popular preschool shows.

Taylor described another difference that may give Bookworm Bunch an advantage over Nick Jr. on CBS. Nick Jr. programs look for "a really young audience, kind of like Barney on PBS," and the rest of Nickelodeon's shows largely target nine- to eleven-year-olds. Five- to seven-year old viewers are "missing on both Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel."

With Arthur, PBS has successfully attracted a very broad age range of kids from two- to eleven and is "very effectively marketing" to them, he continued. Bookworm Bunch is designed with similar broad appeal to kids up to age seven, with emphasis on four- to seven-year-olds.


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