Surge of program projects readied for Ready to Learn

Originally published in Current, May 23, 1994
By Karen Everhart Bedford

Creative energies flowing into new children's programs have generated a power surge in public TV, while commercial broadcasters prepare for new FCC hearings on their role in kidvid.

An informal Current survey found 25 new projects in various stages of development and production [listing below], and that several major producers are pursuing multiple proposals for new children's shows. At the same time, groups new to kidvid such as the Independent Television Service and Henry Hampton's Blackside Inc., are developing contributions to the line-up.

Star talent such as Lily Tomlin — voice of Ms. Frizzle in The Magic School Bus — and celebrity readers on Storytime and Storybook Classics raise the visibility of upcoming shows.

A prime question looming over the wealth of new material is where producers will get the money to bring it to air. Current's survey found that several producers including Lancit Media Productions and Quality Family Entertainment are seeking income from licensing children's toys and other merchandise.

Money was also the overriding concern during a forum of commercial and public broadcasters, policy advocates and educators convened May 18 [1994] by America's Public Television Stations to talk about Ready to Learn activities.

A working group of participants said if RTL advocates could create a sense of urgency about their cause, corporations and government would chip in the millions needed to meet the nation's goal that all children enter school ready to learn by the year 2000. The group said part of the money could come from FCC auctions of spectrum.

The forum served as an occasion for commercial broadcasters, cable networks and public TV to develop criteria for children's educational TV, ahead of the FCC's June 28 hearing on kidvid.

Shortly thereafter, on July 11, public TV's test of its repackaged children's line-up, "PTV, the Ready to Learn Service on PBS," begins on 11 pilot stations in 10 markets. The service will provide two blocks of noncommercial children's programming on weekdays, targeting viewers aged 2-11.

To support RTL programming, a CPB consultant is planning a multifacted fundraising campaign. Leonore Blitz, a New York City consultant who raised funds for the American Foundation for AIDS Research, outlined components of the plan for the CPB Board's Education Committee on May 17:

Blitz also has begun talking with station executives and producers to plan the campaign, and said she is aware of concerns that the fund drive would compete with stations' fundraising. "The board recognizes that this plan will not go forward in isolation," she pledged.

Two dozen projects underway for kids
Starring: Biggles, Noddy, Arthur, Mumfie, Wufnicks, Ms. Frizzle, Mr. Lift & associates

Compiled by Karen Everhart Bedford

An informal Current survey of producers turned up 25 projects to develop new children's series for public television. Almost half of those listed received grants from a new player on the PTV funding scene — the National Endowment for Children's Educational Television (NECET), which sees its role as not just funding series about to go on the air, but also to support early R&D and piloting, according to Heather Birnie, acting director of the program.

By far the greatest number of these potential PTV offerings would serve school-age children and a relatively new target — the "transition" audience between preschool and grade school.

Another new trend, not as evident in this listing because many of PBS's continuing series are leading it, is creation of family specials for primetime. This fall, Mister Rogers, Lamb Chop's Play Along and a new series of storybook classics from Rabbit Ears Productions will join the evening PBS lineup as specials; the producers of Shining Time Station are said to be planning similar programs.


Katie and Orbie
Producing organizations: Lacewood Productions, Ottawa. Presenting station: KERA, Dallas. Episodes: 13 x 30. Status: ready for broadcast, seeking national release. Executive producer: Sheldon Wiseman. KERA contact: Deanna Collingwood, director of program development. Animated in "picture-mation," this series features five-year-old Katie and her friend Orbie, who comes from another planet. Each episode presents three stories about such first-time experiences as losing a tooth, or riding a bus.

Kidsongs Television Show
Producing organizations: Together Again Productions with Warner Brothers Records and WTTW, Chicago. Distributor: American Program Service. Episodes: 30 x 13. Status: debuted in April [1994], now aired on 233 stations (81 percent of U.S. TV households). Producers: Carol Rosenstein and Bruce Gowers. A group of children produce and direct their own TV show for kids. Each episode features music videos, educational themes such as phonics and world cultures, subplots about cooperation and working together, and appearances by fantasy creatures Billy and Ruby Biggle. The series is based on an award-winning show that debuted in 1987 and the Kidsongs home video series.

Kids '94 (working title)
A three-year initiative for children's programming in development by the Independent Television Service (ITVS). Proposed projects: interstitial material for year one; stand-alone specials for year two; a limited series for year three. Status: guidelines for interstitial material to be issued early this summer for a mid-September submission deadline. Funding: at least $800,000 will be committed for interstitials. Consultant to the project: Alice Myatt. ITVS contact: Sheryl Mousely, manager of programming and production. ITVS is designing this initiative to create opportunities for independent producers to contribute to the expansion of public TV's children's service. Producers will target both preschool and school-age children.

Noddy (working title)
Producing organization: Quality Family Entertainment and BBC Lionheart Television. Episodes: existing material in 10-minute episodes to be packaged into an undetermined number of 30s. Status: development. Executive producer: Rick Siggelkow. Like QFE's Shining Time Station, this series will provide a showcase for existing Brit-produced material. Noddy is a stop-motion animated BBC series based on children's books by Enid Blyton. The character Noddy is an elf who lives in Toyland and learns life's lessons from his adventures there.

Puzzleworks [later renamed Puzzle Place]
Producing organizations: Lancit Media Productions and KCET, Los Angeles. Episodes: 40 x 30. Status: in production. Major funding: CPB and SCEcorp. Executive producers: Cecily Truett and Larry Lancit of Lancit Media and Steven Kulczycki of KCET. Supervising producer: Sonia Rosario. Producer: Suzanne Singer. A multicultural cast of puppet characters learn life lessons about mutual respect, self-esteem and the value of all cultures. Each episode combines a dramatic storyline with comedy and music, some feature celebrity guest stars. KCET, Lancit and CPB plan a major educational outreach component that includes ancillary materials and off-air recording rights.

Producing station: KCET, Los Angeles. Episodes: 40 x 30. Status: debuts June 6 on PBS. Executive in charge of production: Steven Kulczycki. Executive producer: Patricia Kunkel. Producer: Julio Moline. Major funders: Helen and Peter Bing, with additional support from CPB, PBS and NECET. Introduces young children to the world of stories and outstanding literature. Episodes feature celebrities reading books to the camera or small groups of children. Hosts Marabina Jaimes, Anne Betancourt and Kino, a kid/puppet performed by Mark Ritts, also discuss stories with children. Home video release of the series by Strand Home Video, to be distributed by Video Treasures, is planned for this fall.

[A confidential project was removed from this web version of the list as a courtesy to the producer.]

Transition years

Arthur Adventure
Producing station: WGBH, Boston. Episodes: 30-40 x 30. Status: development and scripting. Funders: NECET, CPB, PBS. Executive producer: Carol Greenwald. An animated series featuring Arthur, an eight-year-old aardvark who imaginatively deals with many problems faced by young children — bullies, baby teeth and new teachers. WGBH plans extensive educational outreach that links the series with reading and writing skills.

Backyard Safari
Producing organization: Lancit Media Productions. Episodes: 13 x 30s. Status: in production for six episodes, in development for the remaining episodes. Major funders: National Science Foundation (NSF). Executive producers: Larry Lancit, Cecily Truett. Designed to create an awareness of the natural world. Real-life hosts interact with Crinkleroot, a character animated in 3-D rotoscope. Significant outreach component planned.

Blackside Classic Children's Tales (working title)
Producing organization: Blackside Inc. Episodes: 13 x 30s. Status: piloting and research and development for series. Funders: CPB. Executive producer: Henry Hampton. Coproducers: Michael Green and Judy Richardson. An animated series based on folk tales and other stories that reflect the diverse experiences of people and children of color. Although planned, each episode in the series will stand on its own.

Britt Allcroft's Magic Adventures of Mumfie
Producing organization: Quality Family Entertainment. Episodes: in the U.K., 13 x 10; packaging for U.S. market undetermined. Status: property to debut next month at the 1994 licensing show. TV series is in early development.
Keeping details of their plans under close wraps in anticipation of the property's debut, QFE's publicists would only say that Mumfie is a classically animated musical featuring 16 original songs. The character Mumfie is a little elephant.

Short Stories and Tall Tales (working title)
Producing station: KQED, San Francisco. Episodes: 13 x 30. Status: fundraising. Senior executive producer: Michael Schwarz. Producer: Jon Fromer. Combines stories told by the series' two hosts — one, a classic tales storyteller, and the other a mime — with real-life stories told by children. Taped before a studio audience that participates in improvisational activities and theater games.

Storybook Classics (working title)
Producing organization: Rabbit Ears Productions. Presenters: Connecticut PTV and Devillier/Donegan Enterprises. Episodes: 4 x 60. Status: in production of wrap material for existing stories; scheduled for fall release. Funding: acquisition by PBS. Executive producer: Mark Sotnick. Producer: Ken Hoin. A series of primetime specials designed for family viewing. Existing material is animated versions of classic children's stories originally telecast by Showtime; PBS version will feature celebrity hosts and narrators. Each episode will present two to three stories. Rabbit Ears has a library of more than 50 stories. American Public Radio begins feeding separate 52-part Rabbit Ears Radio series in June.

Time Quest
Producing organization: The Media Group of Connecticut in conjunction with the Yale University Family Television Research Center. Episodes: undetermined number of 30s. Status: piloting and R&D. Funder: NECET. Executive producer: Tom Kieffer. Project director: Harvey Bellin. Using a magical time-travel machine, a cast of children participates in interesting moments in American history. Program-related exercises focus on fundamental writing and reading skills. Geared toward ITV delivery, this series includes a major classroom component and an electronic bulletin board for teachers.

Producing organization: NEON Inc. Episodes: 30-40 x 30. Status: piloting. Funders: NSF, NECET, Carnegie Corp. Executive producer: Al Hyslop. Content centers on multidisciplinary, inquiry-based science presented by animated and real-life characters. Designed for family viewing, with special appeal to girls and minorities aged 5 to 9, who traditionally have been discouraged from pursuing science interests.

School age

Disney Presents Bill Nye the Science Guy
Producing organization: KCTS, Seattle, in association with NSF and Rabbit Ears Productions. Distributors: Buena Vista Television (Walt Disney Co. syndication arm) and PBS. Episodes: 65 x 30. Status: PBS this fall begins feeding 26 existing episodes that already have aired in commercial syndication; in production for another 26 shows; package of 13 episodes planned for next production cycle. Funders: Disney, NSF, PBS and LIN Television. Executive producers/directors: Erren Gottlieb and Jim McKenna. Executive in charge of production: Elizabeth Brock. Hosted by mechanical-engineer-turned-comedian Bill Nye, this series combines science with original music videos, graphics, special effects and comedy to dispel the myth that science and learning are dull. The program also goes after girls and minorities to foster their interest in science. Educational components include teaching kits, off-air recording rights and free activity kits for viewers. Recently announced partnership with PBS makes this the first ongoing children's series to air concurrently on commercial and public TV.

The Eddie Files
Producing organization: FASE Productions, a division of the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education. Episodes: an undetermined number of 30s for broadcast use; 24 x 15 for ITV. Status: piloting. Funders: NECET, ARCO and the U.S. Department of Energy. Executive producer: Steve Heard. Senior producer: Kathie Heard. Producer/Director: Rob Mikuriya. A fictional 10-year-old student of Kay Tolliver investigates the world of careers. From the same team that produced the 1993 back-to-school-week special "Good Morning Ms. Tolliver" and Futures with Jaime Escalante.

Goin' Up
Producing organizations: Flexitoon Ltd. and WNET, New York. Episodes: 13 x 30. Status: pilot recently completed; in R&D for series. Funders: NECET. Creator, writer, director: Craig Marin. Producer: Daniel Linck. Executive in charge for WNET: Kathy Rae. Accompanied by Mr. Lift, a fantasy figure based on his real-life dad, 10-year-old Skylar travels through time and space to discover the answers to such questions as "How does a lightbulb work?" and "Where does spaghetti come from?" With the exceptions of Mr. Lift and Skylar's dad, both played by Jonathan Freeman, all characters are "flexitoon" puppets — a style of puppetry first brought to PTV as the juke box band on Shining Time Station. Although planned as a series, each show will present a self-contained story. WNET is exploring classroom applications for series content.

The Magic School Bus
Producing organizations: Scholastic Productions Inc. in association with Nelvana Ltd. Presenting station: South Carolina ETV. Episodes: 13 x 30. Status: in production for fall PBS premiere. Major funders: NSF and Microsoft Home, with additional support from the Department of Energy, the Carnegie Corp. of New York and NECET. Executive producers: Alison Blank and Jane Startz. Supervising producer: Kristin Laskas Martin. A fully animated series starring Lily Tomlin as the voice of Ms. Frizzle, an exuberant "hands-on" teacher who takes her students on exciting science adventures via a magic school bus. Season one features cameo appearances by Ed Begley Jr., Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Carol Channing, Dom DeLuise and Tyne Daly. A major educational outreach component that includes off-air taping rights, activity guides and a traveling museum exhibition will support the series. Based on Scholastic's book series by Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen.

The Nature Trail
Producing station: WNET, New York. Episodes: 13 x 30. Status: R&D. Funders: NECET. Executive producer: Fred Kaufman. This series will take a "how-to" approach to the natural world by looking at nature that is familiar and accessible. Segment topics will offer tips on exploring the natural world, such as how not to get lost in the woods, or answer questions that children ask — for example, why insects fly toward lights or why pigeons flourish in cities. Designed for family viewing. Producers are seeking support for educational components as well as series production.

Producing organizations: KTCA, Twin Cities, and Lancit Media Productions. Episodes: 13 x 30. Status: scripting for first six episodes. Funding: NECET. Executive producers: Catherine Allan for KTCA; Amy Sprecher for Lancit. In a dramatic format, this series is designed to highlight values and decision-making skills, with a particular focus on conflict resolution. The series is set in a summer camp with a cast of 8 to 10 characters. Each episode revolves around a character who grapples with and resolves a moral dilemma or problem typical for children in this age group.

What's the Big Idea?
Producing organizations: Owl TV, Toronto, and WNET. Episodes: 65 x 30. Status: fundraising. Coexecutive producers: Annabel Slaight for Owl, Fred Noriega for WNET. A game show about science and inventions that encourages kids to develop creative problem-solving skills. In each show, two boy-girl teams compete in two puzzle rounds, with the winners moving on to a bonus round.

Producing organizations: Consumer Reports Television in association with Connecticut PTV. Episodes: 4 x 30. Status: R&D; pilot completed and distributed by the American Program Service in December 1993. Funding: NSF (for pilot). Executive producer: Joyce Newman. A video version of Consumer Reports magazine for children aged 8 to 10, this series looks at various products marketed to kids. Children participate in product tests and are encouraged to think analytically about what they are being sold.

Producing station: WGBH, Boston. Episodes: 65 x 30. Status: R&D, pilot production planned for this summer. Funder: CPB. Executive producer: Kate Taylor. A revival of the popular 1970s children's series that was and will be based entirely on viewers' contributions. In a variety show format, a cast of children share jokes and riddles and perform plays that are developed from ideas submitted by viewers. The new Zoom will make use of online computer services and other interactive media to gather audience input.

Zoo Q
Producing station: Georgia PTV in collaboration with Zoo Atlanta. Episodes: 25 x 30. Status: R&D, pre-production planned for July; five-part pilot series completed. Funders: NECET, with additional support from a private, Atlanta-based foundation. Executive producer: Carol Fisk. Producers: Nancy Lebens and Theresa Statz. A quiz show for teams of third, fourth and fifth graders that focuses on zoology, ecology and general science topics. Educational outreach component with print materials and online teacher forums also planned.



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