PBS Special Report: Program profiles: Adventures From the Book of Virtues
A look at six shows-some brand-new, others PBS veterans-that got their start on PBS.
Bruce D. Johnson is executive producer and president, Porchlight Entertainment
June 22, 1994
While in a bookstore, I stumble across William Bennett’s best-seller, The Book of Virtues. Standing there, leafing through the 830 pages of Bennett’s book, I am struck with an idea: this would make a sensational animated series.
June 23, 1994
Having just resigned from my position as executive vice president of Hanna-Barbera, I placed a cold call to William Bennett. To my surprise, he takes the call; to my chagrin, he informs me that 19 other companies have already approached him, including Disney, and that he was ‘down the road’ on a probable deal at that moment. Nevertheless, I inform him of my experience producing anthologies and express an interest in producing his book wherever it ended up. We have a pleasant conversation, and he offhandedly asks me to fax my resume to him. I do.
June 24, 1994
Dr. Bennett’s office calls and asks if I could meet with him in Washington, D.C., the following week. I cram a lot of reading into a few days, write a proposal and finish preparing the presentation at a Georgetown copy center.
June 27, 1994
I meet with Dr. Bennett. We discover a mutual desire to do a children’s television series that will communicate the strong themes of his book: courage, friendship, honesty and the other virtues. Bennett expresses a strong interest in working with me, so the negotiation process begins.
I begin putting together the infrastructure of what will become PorchLight Entertainment. I am joined in this effort by a colleague of mine from Hanna-Barbera, Bill Baumann, who had been with HB’s parent companies, Taft Broadcasting and Great American Broadcasting. A skilled business and financial executive, Bill completes the negotiations for the book.
Working with freelance artists and writers, I begin to develop the concept for the series, including creating characters. I ultimately end up with a group of fun-loving, wise animals (Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Aurora) and two kids, Zach and Annie.
Bennett visits PorchLight, and a very public press announcement is made regarding the acquisition by PorchLight of the rights to The Book of Virtues. The show is named Adventures From the Book of Virtues.
Focus groups are conducted and initial art styles and logos are tested with kids and parents. From these groups, we choose a logo, refine the character models (including hair coloring and ages of the kids), and determine a marketing direction. The input is valuable, and the changes work well.
It’s the first day of MIP-TV and we are aggressively pitching the series. On the patio of the Majestic Hotel in Cannes, I run in to Steven Kulczycki, an old friend of mine from KCET, the PBS station in Los Angeles. He expresses interest in looking at Adventures. I voice concern about PBS because, as everyone knows, PBS license fees are miniscule. He informs me that generally I am right, but some things have changed. I am mildly encouraged, but with no sale yet, it is a long trip back from Nice to L.A.
In Los Angeles, I present the series concept and art to Steven Kulczycki and Pat Kunkel at KCET. They love it. Steven expresses interest on behalf of KCET in being the ‘presenting station.’
We present the series to Kathy Quattrone and Alice Cahn at PBS headquarters. They respond enthusiastically and I recall Kathy saying, ‘This series belongs on PBS.’ I couldn’t have agreed more.
Production begins with Fox Animation Studios in Phoenix. Along the way, we sign celebrities to help with the character voices, including Kathy Bates, Mark Harmon, Tim Curry, Pam Dawber and many others. Many of these celebrities graciously agree to help during our PR campaign, supplying interviews, photos and quotes for articles.
With the commitment from PBS, we are able to bring on top-notch marketing partners, including IBM for an interactive CD-ROM, Simon & Schuster for a line of storybooks, PBS Video/Turner (now Warner) for domestic home video distribution, Twentieth Century Fox for international television and home video distribution, Reader’s Digest for direct-mail sales, and many others. We hold a press conference in New York City to announce our growing franchise.
CIGNA, an insurance, health care and financial service company, signs on as major underwriter, bringing crucial production money to the series, as well as a major emotional boost to the whole production team. The KCET underwriting team gets a big thumbs up.
KCET scores again with more production funding grants from the John M. Olin Foundation, Sarah Scaife Foundation, and The Arthur Vining Davis Foundation. Our production funding gap has been closed. Whew!
Now the licensing program begins. Working with Hamilton Projects, we present the series to licensees at the Licensing Show. Licensees eventually include Patch Products for board games, UBI for apparel, Western Graphics for posters, Mill Pond Press for wall art, and many others.
To maximize awareness and carriage of the series, we bring in our celebrity talent (John Forsythe and Michael Horse) and host a breakfast for 1,000 people at the PBS Annual Meeting in San Francisco. A great event that promises us strong carriage in September.
Bennett comes to Los Angeles to promote the show, appearing on Entertainment Tonight, CNN Showbiz, Today and Home and Family. He also does interviews with the Washington Post, Associated Press and other syndicates. The campaign was one of the top three PBS national press campaigns in 1996, with over 2,500 articles.
We hold a premiere party at the Director’s Guild of America in Los Angeles. The 700 people in attendance, including 300 kids, are mesmerized by a 30-minute episode. Success.
The series premieres as the first-ever prime-time animated series in the history of PBS. With a ratings success of a 5.5 in households with children and carriage at a tremendous 96 percent, we’re thrilled. Not only did we bring a whole new family audience to PBS in prime time, we also created a loyal and committed audience. In the weeks following the premiere, our Web site (www.pbs.org/adventures) became the most frequented new children’s site in PBS history, with thousands of hits and hundreds of e-mails! Another Adventures success.
The series airs as a PBS marathon on Thanksgiving Day. Perfect pairing of virtues and family!
Seven new episodes premiere. Carriage remains high at 82 percent of nationwide households. PBS is thrilled and orders 13 new episodes for spring 1998. The production funding struggle begins again.
CIGNA renews its underwriting support by signing on for the new episodes. Not only does it provide crucial production money, but the company’s support and enthusiasm have become critical elements of our marketing program.
Production of the next 13 episodes begins. On the promotional end, Adventures is progressing well, with the announcement by Hamilton Projects of a promotional tie-in with Wendy’s. The promotion will provide US$1 million in advertising for the series, eight to 10 million premiums and 35 million place mats. A great boost for everyone!
KCET scores again by bringing another major underwriter on board. The unnamed corporation brings production money and marketing support to the series. The excitement and energy surrounding the series continues to grow and build!
We look forward to a great new season in February 1998. With the Wendy’s promotion, 13 new episodes (26 in total) airing weekly on Sundays, a curriculum in schools and major retail support, we’re excited about the future of Adventures and anticipate growing support from both the viewing audience and the retail and licensee community.