PBS wants to extend reach past `Sesame’ crowd

Mar 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Having already cemented its hold on pre-school-age viewers, PBS is looking to take curriculum-rich programming to the kids 6 to 11 demographic by furthering its ties to prolific independent series producer Sesame Workshop.
Formerly known as the Children’s Television Workshop, the signature supplier of PBS’s “Sesame Street” for more than 30 years is expanding its animated production next season to include Amy Tan’s best-selling book series “Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat.” With a 40-episode order from PBS, Sesame Workshop, Canadian-based CineGroup Productions and IF/X Productions began production in Montreal on what is promising to be one of the signature additions to the PBS Bookworm Bunch Club checkerboard next fall.
“`Sagwa’ is going to mark an interesting departure, particularly in terms of understanding Asian folk tales and understanding cultural and environmental differences,” said Gary Knell, president of Sesame Workshop. “We just finished screening a rough-cut episode for some school kids in New York, and the appeal ratings just went off the scale.”
John Wilson, senior vice president of programming services for PBS, sees “Sagwa’s” appeal “straddling” between the pre-school (kids 2 to 5) demographic to the kids 6 to 11 demo. In fact, he said, along with PBS’s top-ranked “Arthur” series, “Sagwa” is part of a “phased project” to broaden PBS to the kids 6 to 11 demo during the next couple of years, then to the elusive “tween” set of 9- to 14- year-olds.
“We began by making our strengths in kids 2 to 5 years old, where we have this incredibly strong pipeline with `Sesame Street,’ `Clifford’ and `Dragon Tales,’ then have been moving to slightly scale the demos up with `Arthur’ and `Zoom,”’ Mr. Wilson said. “We’ve been working really hard on developing properties that appeal to kids 6 to 11, and then we’re looking to do something down the road with tweens, but they could take longer to reach.”
Although not ratings-driven like the commercial networks, PBS has the top-three-ranked series on all of television-“Arthur,” “Dragon Tales” and “Clifford: The Big Red Dog”-in the kids 2 to 5 and kids 2 to 11 demos during the first half of the fourth quarter (September-October 2000), according to Nielsen Media Research. In kids 2 to 5, “Arthur” (12.2 rating), “Dragon Tales” (10.9) and “Clifford” (10.2) held a commanding 86 percent margin (11.1 vs. 6.5) over Nickelodeon’s top three competing series during the span.
Mr. Wilson has been playing on the strengths of the PBS pre-school lineup to continue to drive program development but is also looking slowly to tilt some new programming toward older kids. He is working on “Ben Franklin and Friends,” a historical series PBS is developing with DIC Entertainment for possible fall 2001 or early 2002 entry in the “Bookworm” block.
Another grade-school-targeted, curriculum-based series in development is “Cyber Chase,” a series about three children who are transported in a computer world and must use mathematical equations to find “gates” to get out. WNET-TV in New York is producing the series, which will have an online tie-in for kids to play the “mathematical, pattern recognition game” as part of PBS’s educational outreach program, Mr. Wilson said.
Mr. Knell hinted that he may have some new programming elements to be incorporated with “Sesame Street” next season. Last December, Sesame Workshop acquired the rights to several key Muppet characters-Big Bird, Bert, Ernie and Elmo-from German media concern EM.TV, which had earlier acquired the characters from the Jim Henson Co. Specifically, with Elmo’s World being the core centerpiece of “Sesame Street,” Mr. Knell hinted the nonprofit company is “getting its arms around” creating animated spinoffs for newly acquired Muppet characters, as well as new merchandising opportunities.