Public TV again turns to Canada for kidvid

George Shrinks artwork

They're very tall, very short, shy, not shy & stuffed

The new Saturday preschool programming block Nelvana will create for PBS for fall 2000 airing is based on six modern children's classics. "When I was in the classroom, these were the ones you used on a regular basis," said Jean Chase, national director of PBS Ready to Learn. The six animated series are:

Seven Little Monsters, based on the book of the same name by Maurice Sendak. Each of the children in this monster family is over 10 feet tall, and each has a special talent (one can fly, one can remove his head). In every show one monster will confront a kid-sized concern and discover his or her own best way of resolving the problem.

George Shrinks, based on the book of the same name by William Joyce. George is only three inches tall, but he doesn't let that stop him from washing the dishes, taking out the garbage and other everyday chores. In fact, he likes the challenge.

Timothy Goes to School, based on the books of Rosemary Wells. Timothy is a shy five-year-old whose adventures and friendships teach preschoolers the importance of cooperation, perseverance and sticking up for oneself.

Elliot Moose, based on the book Elliot's Emergency by Andrea Beck. The only program of the six to combine animation with live action, it will feature six stuffed animals that live in a playroom but use a dog flap in the kitchen door to explore the outside world.

Junior Kroll and Company, based on the book of the same name by Betty and Michael Paraskevas. Junior is a rascally but endearing tyke with a cereal-bowl haircut. His entertaining, kids'-eye perspective of the world will help young viewers develop problem-solving strategies.

Corduroy, based on the book Corduroy and its sequel, A Pocket for Corduroy, by Don Freeman. Corduroy is a bear who doesn't live in the forest; he lives in a big, bustling, vibrant city, full of diverse people and cultures. His adventures take place in this urban contemporary environment.

Toper Taylor, head of Toronto-based Nelvana's U.S. operations, said all of the authors except Freeman, who died in 1978, "are very, very involved in the series."

--Geneva Collins

Originally published in Current, Aug. 16, 1999. Book cover artwork courtesy of Nelvana Ltd.

By Geneva Collins

When PBS made one of its largest-ever production deals recently--a pact worth $40 million in children's programming -- it wasn't with one of its big producing stations, or with Ken Burns or Devillier Donegan, but with one of the powerhouse production companies across the long northern border.

Nelvana Ltd., one of the continent's largest animation studios, will produce six new children's series for PBS's fall 2000 schedule. The shows will air as the network's first-ever Saturday morning children's block, and at least two of the series, yet to be selected, will live on as stripped shows as part of PBS' weekday Ready to Learn programming.

The deal is the first between PBS and Toronto-based Nelvana, which is turning out more than 200 half-hours of Babar, Rolie Polie Olie, Donkey Kong and other cartoons this year, for networks around the world. However, Nelvana, which specializes in adapting children's literary classics for the screen and which has produced animated series for CBS, Fox Kids Network and Nickelodeon, is not the first Canadian production house to enter the U.S. public television market in a big way.

That honor goes to Montreal-based Cinar, which co-produces Arthur with WGBH and also brings Wimzie's House to the PBS schedule. Cinar's preschool series Caillou will debut on PBS in fall 2000, and the company is taking over production (in association with Earth Creatures Co.) of the Kratt Brothers' Zoboomafoo, with 25 new episodes that will air in 2001.

PBS's Theodore Tugboat comes from still another Canadian company, Cochran Entertainment, of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Canadian kids' shows that have entered the system via American Public Television distribution include The Adventures of Dudley the Dragon, The Big Comfy Couch and Groundling Marsh. Kratts' Creatures and the late Shari Lewis's Lamb Chop's Play-Along were also produced in Canada.

At least one U.S. producer of children's shows feels slighted by the Canadian deals.

"We are absolutely befuddled and bewildered that PBS spends more time working with producers from Canada than they do even talking to producers in this country," said Richard Goldsmith, president of Benny Smart Productions, based in Los Angeles. "We've had an impossible time breaking through to PBS. To read that Nelvana is making a major deal with PBS is a slap in the face to American suppliers."

Benny Smart acquired Big Comfy Couch from Canada and packaged material from several countries in its Someday School preschool series, also distributed via APT, but Goldsmith feels the lack of government subsidies in the United States makes for "an impossible situation for producers like myself to create original product."

Government subsidy is what Canada offers in spades. According to information from Telefilm Canada, the federal cultural agency dedicated to developing and promoting the country's film, TV and multimedia industry, a whole constellation of investment equity funding, license fee grants, and tax credits are available on the national level. Additional funding help is available from provincial agencies or through private grants and incentives.

Canada has aggressively encouraged homegrown TV productions since it created the Canadian Broadcast Program Development Fund in 1983. At the time, 85 percent of primetime viewing in Canada was foreign-made. It moved into high gear when it pumped $200 million (Canadian) into what is now called the Canadian Television Fund in 1996 and renewed the Fund in 1998.

According to Mary Maddever, editor and v.p. of Kidscreen magazine, which is published in Toronto but has an international focus, Canadian government equity investment can cover up to 49 percent of a program's eligible costs. Tax credits designed to encourage domestic production are available to cover a certain percentage of eligible salaries on a show. The percentage is based on a complicated point system. A show like Arthur, for example, which straddles two countries, gets points for having a Canadian director and animators, but not for script writing, since most of the writers are American.

Because Canadian networks are required to air a certain amount of domestic programming (60 percent is the average), plenty of private initiatives exist to encourage Canadian companies to make programs to fill up the daily schedule grid as well. A cable company may have funds set aside for children's television production, for example.

99 percent reach is bankable

Back in the United States, PBS may not be able to bring as much cash to the table as its commercial counterparts, but its 99 percent household penetration rate still makes producers drool, said Maddever. "People who are going to put their shows on PBS need to pull together a budget pretty independent of [what PBS can pay]. That's what makes Canadians so well positioned," she said.

For the Nelvana-PBS deal, the Canadian company is responsible for raising the initial financing for the six series. PBS will begin picking up "a significant portion" of the costs when two of the series go into production for daily airing, said Toper Taylor, president of Nelvana's U.S. operations. Taylor said he expects that government and broadcast subsidies will cover about 25 percent of the $40 million ($60 million Canadian), PBS will cover about 25 percent, and the rest will be made up through corporate underwriting and international distribution.

Although no one disagrees that U.S. producers are at a disadvantage, several sources interviewed for this story are quick to point out that governmental subsidies of TV production are not unique to Canada.

"America is the only modern industrial nation in the world that does not subsidize the entertainment industry. America views entertainment as a business, not culture. Germany, England, Canada--everywhere else--views the product as a contribution to culture, just like Van Gogh paintings and Ansel Adams photographs," said Taylor.

Indeed, when Cinar teams up with a producer from a country like France that has its own tax incentives to encourage local production, the deals get very complicated because each country must ensure its production requirements are met, said Cassandra Schafhausen, Cinar's v.p. of animation production and development.

"Also, these funds are not bottomless pits. They run out of money, they decide not to spend it--it's all very political," she noted.

Maddever agrees. "A whole bunch of people are filling out forms, but they don't necessarily get money. A whole lot of producers are competing for the same dollars."

To most kidvid people interviewed for this article, the Canadian model doesn't look unfair--it looks like something the U.S. should imitate.

"I think what has happened with the Canadian production houses is a sign of what can happen when a government takes an interest in supporting excellence in children's television," said David Kleeman, executive director of the Chicago-based American Center for Children and Media. Noting that Canadian programs enjoy a worldwide reputation for excellence, he said, "These incentives have been revolutionary for the industry there. I certainly feel for the American producers who can't compete in that financial world. I would hope the U.S. government would take a closer look at it--not only that Canada requires educational programming but that they also support the production of it."

The U.S. Congress once did flirt with the idea of special funding for children's TV, creating the National Endowment for Children's Educational Television, but it provided relatively little funding and eliminated funding entirely after Newt Gingrich took leadership of the House in 1995.

Animation travels well

Canada exports a whole lot of programming besides kidvid, said Eric Luskin, director of syndication for APT, but children's animation is among the most exportable of products since it usually just needs dubbing. And as Nelvana's Taylor notes, "a turtle is a turtle no matter if you're in France or China."

Also, children's programming lends itself to lucrative product licensing; one-hour nature documentaries may be cheaper to make, but they don't translate into cool lunchboxes and talking dolls.

One of Goldsmith's criticisms of foreign productions is that they may not be following the same educational curricula that U.S.-made children's shows would: "Not only does our economy suffer as a result [of U.S. dollars going to Canada], but our children suffer because they're being educated by foreigners."

Carol Greenwald, executive producer of Arthur, said because WGBH retains control over scripting, she doesn't think that's an issue for her program. "There are some cultural differences between U.S. and Canadian shows, as well as from a U.S. and a U.K. show. I don't think that's always a bad thing. But I think it would be a shame if we didn't have any totally home-grown shows. ... Zoom is an example of a home-grown product that's really important to have on PBS. It's reflecting who kids are here. It's not something you could get money from a foreign country for."

In the $40 million deal just announced, it was Nelvana executives who pitched the idea of adapting six children's classics to TV. But with Arthur, the idea originated with WGBH. Greenwald said she and Arthur author Marc Brown reviewed at least 15 animation companies around the world before selecting Cinar. The company's track record with similar adaptations, its willingness to work cooperatively and share production responsibilities (some companies wanted to manage the whole project), its ability to put up part of the production budget, and the relative proximity of Montreal to Boston (compared with a U.K. company that was one of the final contenders) were all factors in its favor, she said.

"What we focus on is the quality of the program, not its geographic boundaries," said Jean Chase, national director of PBS Ready to Learn, on the subject of U.S.-versus-Canadian producers. "Obviously, we work with countries other than Canada. But we obviously feel we have a very strong relationship with American producers. ... PBS always has to look at the funding, because we don't have the big budget that other children's programming networks have. We want the best programming at a very cost-efficient rate."

Bruce Johnson, president of Los Angeles-based PorchLight Entertainment, which produces Adventures from the Book of Virtues for PBS, feels some of Goldsmith's pain.

"As an American producer, I've got my hands a bit tied behind my back because our government doesn't provide any funding for production, as the Canadian government does," he said. Noting that his company has an international distribution division and the ability to do international co-productions, Johnson said the key to success in the '90s is the ability to think as globally as the Canadian powerhouses do.

"I'm happy to be in business with them [PBS]. We're bringing them great show material, and I believe the material is what people buy, not the deals."

Several specifics of the Nelvana programming have yet to be ironed out. Taylor said each of the shows, based on classics by well-known children's authors like Maurice Sendak, Rosemary Wells and Don Freeman, will run 13 episodes, but whether the episode length is 22 minutes or 28 hasn't been determined.

Auditions for strippers

After the shows air for 13 episodes, Nelvana and PBS will decide jointly which two will be extended into daily strips, based on popularity, critical acclaim, corporate underwriting, and other factors.

"Quite frankly, I think there will be more than two that will be stripped," Taylor predicted.

"Mostly on Saturdays PBS has focused on how-to programs. This is going to be a major change," said Chase. She said the shows weren't part of the Ready to Learn agreement between PBS and stations, but a decision hadn't been made about that yet. "Kids don't stop learning on Friday afternoon."


To Current's home page

Current Briefing on children's programming.

Outside link: PBS Kids web site, and programs with Canadian producers or co-producers: Arthur, Zoboomafoo, Theodore Tugboat, Charlie Horse's Music Pizza, Wimzie's House.

Outside link: Nelvana Ltd. web site.

Outside link: Web site of Canadian funding agency, Telefilm Canada.

Outside link: Cinar web site.

Outside link: Cochran Entertainment web site.


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