At a time when other networks are renting out their Saturday morning blocks, PBS’s weekend kids block continues to thrive.
Launched in fall 2001 under the terms of a production deal with Toronto, Canada-based Nelvana, the block serves as a testing ground for untried concepts, with a stipulation that allows PBS to choose at least two Bookworm Bunch shows to strip. ‘Monday through Friday slots are too precious to experiment with, but [the Bookworm Bunch] is a great way for us to test-drive some content before we make a commitment,’ says PBS senior VP and co-chief program executive John Wilson.
Beginning next January, George Shrinks and Seven Little Monsters will be stripped weekdays, along with The Berenstain Bears, a 40 x 15-minute series that Nelvana is currently producing. The prodco is also in development on two other series to fill the weekend slots that will open up with the departure of George Shrinks and Seven Little Monsters; details on these new projects were unavailable at press time.
In setting up the Bookworm Bunch block, PBS was looking to gain a foothold in a daypart in which it didn’t have a lot of kids programming and in which preschoolers were generally underserved. In a March 2000 interview, Wilson told KidScreen that the block would fulfill a three-pronged PBS mandate: to showcase the best kids programming; to not simply do no harm, but to also provide benefit; and to work with some of the best modern-day kids authors.
Production partner Nelvana–whose Bookworm Bunch contract is up in January 2003–was chosen mainly for its ties to renowned kids authors such as Don Freeman (Corduroy), William Joyce (George Shrinks), Betty and Michael Paraskevas (Marvin the Tap Dancing Horse) and Maurice Sendak (Seven Little Monsters). ‘PBS has enjoyed tremendous success with programs based on children’s books,’ says Nelvana CEO Michael Hirsh, citing Marc Brown’s Arthur as a case in point. ‘But they had never done this kind of volume before.’
Nelvana’s track record in streaming content for such varied broadcasters as HBO (Babar, Pippi Longstocking, The Never Ending Story) and Nickelodeon (Franklin, Little Bear, Maggie and the Ferocious Beast) helped to clinch the deal.
Working with one production partner kept the budget efficient. ‘PBS and Nelvana were able to create the sort of economy of scale that allowed us to get the block off the ground and launch six series,’ says Wilson. Nelvana covered all production costs of the weekend block at an estimated US$188,000 per half hour, and was responsible for securing Hasbro’s Playskool as a block sponsor–a major coup considering that PBS policy prohibits series advertisers and licensees from being one and the same.
So what’s in it for a production partner covering off a significant portion of the costs? International rights for one (PBS typically retains U.S. rights only), but the benefits go beyond the bottom line, according to Hirsh. ‘PBS provides great outreach,’ he says. ‘And we were able to bring some great children’s properties to a TV home where we knew they would find their audience.’
Asked whether Nelvana would look to create programming blocks for other broadcasters based on its PBS experience and past dealings with other networks, Hirsh says ‘absolutely–it’s something we feel very comfortable with.’ Plus, it gives Nelvana an international distribution advantage in that the company has a whole slate of shows to shop rather than pitching on a series-by-series basis.
PBS recently extended its production relationship with Nelvana through older-skewing series Cyberchase, and on the basis of that experience, Wilson says he would consider working with the prodco on content for the six to 11 set in the future. Apparently, Nelvana is of the same mind. Hirsh says his company is currently focused on expanding its slate to include more educon series for older kids.