A look at six shows-some brand-new, others PBS veterans-that got their start on PBS.
Sheryl Leach, Barney’s creator, was a full-time mom with a very active two-year-old son. She searched fruitlessly for interactive, entertaining videos to capture the attention of her child. After reviewing the few children’s videos on the market at the time, she decided she could do the job better. She decided to create her own children’s video series.
While stuck in traffic one day, she found the inspiration for the lead character of the series, a ‘snugly’ that would come to life through a child’s imagination. The original inspiration for the character took many forms: a blanket, a teddy bear or another cuddly friend. She began ‘kitchen research’ with children in the neighborhood, evaluating which songs, characters and plot lines were both educational and entertaining to children. Sheryl created an ‘edutainment’ formula for children’s programming that is still used on Barney & Friends today, combining songs, early childhood learning concepts, social lessons and lovable, gentle characters.
Sheryl and her young son visited a traveling dinosaur exhibit. Sheryl noticed how captivated children were with dinosaurs and how her son couldn’t stop talking about the exhibit. On that day, Sheryl’s character, Barney, became a dinosaur.
Sheryl approached her father-in-law, Richard C. Leach, for funding for the first three Barney home videos and the use of his educational publishing company’s television production facilities. Shortly thereafter, she was joined by a team of writers, developmental specialists and producers, including executive producer Dennis DeShazer. Production began on the first three Barney videos, A Day at the Beach, Barney and the Backyard Gang and Three Wishes.
Sheryl organized a team of neighborhood mothers, called ‘Mom Blitzers,’ to begin selling videos, one at a time, to toy and video stores. Because there was not much awareness of Barney among parents at the time, it was an uphill battle to sell Barney videos, which would later become the number-one- selling line of children’s non-theatrical videos. It was time to launch what Sheryl Leach called ‘Operation Preschool.’
Sheryl knew that children who had seen the first videos were mesmerized by Barney and responded instantly to the songs, activities and characters. The challenge was to get more and more children to experience the education and fun of the purple dinosaur. To generate grassroots awareness, the ‘Mom Blitzers’ began sending Barney videos to preschools and day care centers located near video and toy stores where Barney videos were available.
The popularity of Barney began to swell as more and more children fell in love with the Purple Guy in school and day care. Because of this grassroots support of Barney, the first series of Barney videos became successful and were sold in more video and toy stores.
One of those early Barney videos ended up in a Prospect, Connecticut, video store and just happened to be selected for viewing by four-year-old Leora Rifkin, daughter of Larry Rifkin, executive vice president of programming for Connecticut Public Television, a station that is an award-winning producer of local and national programs. Rifkin was intrigued as his daughter watched the Barney video repeatedly, singing and dancing with her newfound dinosaur friend.
Knowing that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) were searching for new, quality children’s programming, Rifkin contacted Sheryl. Her company, The Lyons Group, developed a proposal with Connecticut Public Television to produce Barney & Friends.
May 2, 1991
Larry Rifkin called Sheryl to welcome Barney & Friends to PBS. Everyone working on the project was elated and energized at the prospect of bringing Barney to such a large audience of children every day of the week.
At the time, The Lyons Group was a group of fewer than 10 people gathered in a small office space in Allen, Texas, located just north of Dallas. With a tiny, uncomplicated set, a delightful cast of young children and a small group of team members, production began on the first 20 episodes of Barney & Friends, a children’s series that would later become the number-one- rated preschool series on public television.
PBS added Barney & Friends to its children’s programming lineup, and nobody could have anticipated the impact of the move. The Barney Fan Club phone line began ringing with calls from parents who told about their preschoolers singing, dancing, imagining and learning from the catchy, tuneful episodes in the series. Children were captivated by the lovable purple dinosaur, and parents said they had never seen their children so responsive and excited about a children’s program.
Six weeks after Barney & Friends was broadcast on public television, the show was cancelled. PBS announced it would not continue its support of new Barney & Friends episodes. The news was shocking to parents of children who had grown to love the purple dinosaur. Sheryl decided the only way to ensure the continued success of Barney & Friends was to turn to the parents and children who loved Barney most-Barney Fan Club members.
The grassroots approach that was used to launch the Barney video series was used to rally Barney’s biggest fans to support the continuation of the series. The Lyons Group communicated directly with Barney Fan Club members and urged them to express their views to local public television stations. Fan Club members mobilized, and PBS stations across the country received thousands of phone calls from parents demanding new Barney & Friends shows. Parents wrote letters to local newspapers and spread the word to others. Preschoolers across the country were screaming, ‘We want Barney.’ But would anyone hear them?
The toddler vote was heard and PBS announced that it would continue its support of new Barney & Friends episodes. The groundswell of public support for Barney & Friends was phenomenal, and the Barney Fan Club exploded with new members.
Within its first three years, Barney & Friends was credited with helping public television raise over US$15 million in pledge income, as well as attract national and local underwriting. In addition, public television received 30 percent of net income from certain uses of the program, including music, home videos and foreign broadcasts. Lyrick Studios gave hundreds of thousands of free copies of an activity guide called Watch, Play & Learn in both Spanish and English to PBS stations, and Barney began to make nonprofit appearances nationwide to benefit local PBS stations.
Drs. Jerome and Dorothy Singer completed a study of Barney & Friends programming that recognized the educational philosophy behind the series. The study described Barney & Friends as ‘. . . virtually a model of what a preschool program should be.’ (Yale University Family Television and Research Consultation Center.) The Yale team completed additional research that focused on low-income and culturally diverse children and concluded that viewing Barney & Friends nearly doubled school preparedness levels when combined with classroom activities.
The rest, as they say, is history. The series has been nominated for five Emmy Awards since 1993, and has reached unprecedented popularity since its debut. Barney & Friends continues to be a strong presence in the children’s programming block on public television, reaching more than 13 million children across the United States each week.
A new season (20 episodes) of Barney & Friends will debut in November, featuring new characters, an all-new cast of children, exciting new themes and plenty of purple. PBS has unlimited broadcast rights to all of the first three seasons (68 episodes) of Barney & Friends through April 30, 1998. Twenty new episodes will be released on public television each year through 1999 for PBS.
Barney remains a dinosaur in demand. He has expanded internationally, embarked on a national stage show tour and almost completed his first feature film, Barney’s Great Adventure. Although these projects are significant to the continued growth of this classic character, we haven’t lost sight of one of the most significant parts of the world of Barney, the Barney & Friends public television series. The producers of Barney & Friends continue to reflect and improve what we consider the foundation of the property-the ability to reach children through daily lessons learned on Barney & Friends through public television. The partnership between public television and Barney & Friends is an effective one because we share a common goal: to educate children during their earliest years and make the world a better place for them.