A look at six shows-some brand-new, others PBS veterans-that got their start on PBS.
Carol Greenwald is executive producer, Arthur, and director of development for children’s and family programming, WGBH
It started out very simply. I got Marc Brown’s phone number from his publisher and just called him up. It was even a local call.
But before I go further, here’s the back story: For a long time, we’d been thinking about adapting a book series for television, since research has shown that kids are more likely to read books they’ve seen on TV. Seems like a no-brainer, but it had to be the right book series-one that could support a daily strip, build an audience, look great in cel animation, and, most important, feel true to kids’ lives.
So, I put it to Marc Brown. Would he be interested in working with us on a PBS Arthur series? Marc thought for a minute, then said, ‘I get so many calls like this and I always say `no.’ But you know, it really does seem that PBS would be the right home for Arthur.’
If only the rest of it were this easy.
Our first meeting with Marc. We brief him on why we’re interested in Arthur and how we might adapt his books to television. (We want to be true to his vision, but flexible enough to take advantage of what animation has to offer.) Marc is delighted to hear that we want him to be a real collaborator, not just a figurehead. We decide to start negotiating an agreement.
I spend the day in Washington making the rounds. First, I visit the newest funder on the block, the National Endowment for Children’s Educational Television (NECET), which is now defunct, unfortunately. The staff are friendly, but they’re not yet able to judge whether Arthur fits their agenda. The next stop is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Mary Sceiford, associate director of educational and instructional programming, is supportive, but she wants to know whether PBS is interested. So I trudge on over to PBS and pitch the show to Alice Cahn and Cat Lyon. They both love it! Cat’s kids are fans of the books, and Alice thinks a daily animated series is a great idea. Phew. Now all we have to do is write about a million proposals.
Proposal-writing hell. It’s partly an art, partly a science and mostly just lots of work. We start with NECET in the hopes they’ll give us development and scripting money. After crafting 30 pages of a proposal, including a statement of need, goals, educational value, story treatments, an advisory board and evaluation plans, we are finally finished and ready for FedEx.
In the middle of a going-away party for one of our staff, we get the call. NECET has accepted our proposal, one of 12 to be funded out of dozens submitted. We’re stunned.
To do Arthur right, we’ve got to premiere it as a daily, which means a minimum of 30 episodes for the first season. But with animation running between US$300,000 and $400,000 per half-hour, that, gulp, totals between US$9 million and $12 million.
So, it’s off to MIPCOM, where I try to round up some potential international distribution partners. Luckily, it’s not too hard. Turns out Marc wasn’t kidding when he said lots of people had approached him before. Also, it doesn’t hurt that WGBH is a familiar face at Cannes. I leave feeling pretty hopeful.
Happy days! PBS and CPB agree to match NECET’s development grant. Now we can start spending some money.
Marc and I hit the road. London, Montreal and L.A. to be exact, where we meet with animators and possible production partners. I mostly want a partner who understands book-based adaptations and who’s willing to work closely with WGBH. Some people I spoke with were aghast when they heard that Marc had approval rights.
In the end, we both feel best with Cinar. They’ve just finished the Richard Scarry series, they have a strong creative team and a good infrastructure capable of handling a high volume of production, they’re comfortable with collaboration, and as an added bonus, they have a strong international distribution arm. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re only 45 minutes away by plane.
We hold an advisory meeting to talk about maximizing the educational content of the show. We discuss how to model reading and writing (we don’t want to be didactic), how to make the characters more diverse without stereotyping and what kinds of print materials would work best for teachers. This is the first of many such meetings.
Our first real production powwow. We’ve agreed with Cinar that writing will be managed at WGBH, so we come prepared with story ideas and candidates for a head writer. Cinar suggests directors, and we discuss schedules and money. We all leave feeling like we’re actually making a television program instead of just talking about it.
PBS finally commits some production dollars, and CPB comes through with a major grant. We’re so close to being fully funded that, after some reasoned argument and outright begging, WGBH agrees to give us a green light (meaning, they’ll cover the shortfall). The rest of the money will come, we hope, from corporate underwriters and, eventually, from merchandising, home video and international distribution.
Marc and I start working with Cinar on the fun stuff-auditioning voices, looking at pencil tests and working through initial storyboards, backgrounds and designs. Cinar negotiates a deal with AKOM Production in Seoul, Korea, to do the overseas animation work. This production machine is ready to roll.
After soliciting proposals for a home video partner, we opt to work with Random House. It’s a great offer financially, which makes everyone breathe a little bit easier.
WGBH’s Print and Outreach department is in the midst of developing educational materials for the series, the centerpiece being a storywriting kit that will be offered to second grade classrooms. But that’s only the beginning. Over the next year, Print and Outreach will do presentations for major literacy organizations and develop ideas for Arthur mall events, which, after all, is where the kids are.
The first rough cuts are delivered and, of course, there are tons of problems, but overall they look pretty good. We quickly package them, so we can get some formative evaluation done.
We’ve started production on the interstitials, the short, live-action pieces that bridge the two stories in each episode. The concept is to show kids interacting naturally with the theme(s) of the show. We’ll have kids write their own baby-sitting manual for ‘Arthur Babysits,’ for example, and there’s going to be an all-school slumber party filmed for ‘Arthur’s Sleezpover.’ Of course, underlying all our interstitials is our real agenda, which is motivating kids to read and write and learn good problem-solving skills.
The evaluation comes back, and hallelujah, kids really love the show. The independent evaluator we hired, RMC Research, tells me they’ve never seen a show test so well.
And, just as exciting, Ziggy Marley has agreed to perform the theme song. Jeff Zahn, Cinar’s music supervisor, and I jump on a plane to Jamaica, where we spend a grueling day (yeah, I mean it) getting the whole thing recorded and mixed. We’re stuck in the studio from 9 a.m. until midnight and back on the plane the next day. (I did manage a brief dip in the pool.)
Arthur is presented at the PBS annual meeting in San Francisco. It’s well received by the program managers who will ultimately decide when and how to schedule and promote the show. I even manage to convince Kathy Quattrone to wear a pair of Arthur glasses when she introduces us.
We also get our first official underwriter, Juicy Juice. WGBH is quite relieved.
The shows are all packaged and delivered to PBS. We’re working on the Arthur Web site, which will, hopefully, premiere the same day as the series. I’m initially skeptical about the need for a site. Our audience is a little too young for Web surfing, or so I think. I’m soon proved wrong. By early 1997, we average 1,800 e-mails a week.
The reviews start to pour in, and we couldn’t be happier. They are uniformly positive and, to top it off, we’re chosen as one of the ‘Top 10 New Children’s Shows’ by TV Guide.
So, three-and-a-half years after that initial phone call, we premiere. We’re on the air in virtually every market, and we’re getting some pretty good slots, right after Barney in most cases.
Time to relax? Hah! We’re already thinking about season two. It’s an ongoing, or perhaps more aptly, a never-ending process. But well worth the effort.
By early 1997, we’ve become the top-rated PBS children’s show in the top 36 markets. PBS and CPB, as well as our other funders, commit to a second season and even add 10 additional shows for winter 1998. Our home videos ‘go platinum,’ Baby Gap jumps on board as underwriter number two and, best of all, it becomes very clear that kids are reading Arthur books in droves. Arthur has bumped Goosebumps from the number one spot on the Publisher’s Weekly list, and libraries are having to limit the number of Arthur books any one kid can take out. Our no-brainer seems to have worked!