PBS KIDS has picked up Fred Rogers Productions new puppet series Donkey Hodie to air on its linear channel and digital platforms in winter 2021. Revolving around the adventures of a donkey and her friends, the studio is co-producing the 40 x half-hour show with Illinois prodco Spiffy Pictures (Nature Cat, Frankie and Frank, Bunnytown).
The show is inspired by the original puppet Donkey Hodie, who was featured in Mister Rogers Neighborhood and will feature some cameos in the new series as Grampy Hodie, and the studio wanted to revive the equidae to leverage the ongoing popularity of the established characters.
Fred Rogers Productions chose to make the show with puppets (rather than animation) to give the new Donkey Hodie a tactile and more “huggable” look and feel that kids would connect with, says chief creative officer Ellen Doherty. There’s also gap in the market for puppet shows, and puppetry allowed the prodco to expand its offering.
Donkey Hodie, who lives on her own and isn’t a child, also helps the character and the series stand apart from other Mister Rogers spin offs, such as Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Since Daniel is designed to reflect what it’s like to live as a four-year-old, Donkey Hodie opened up new storytelling—and demographic—opportunities.
“This new show can reach kids who are a bit older because the characters are all ageless, like Winnie the Pooh or SpongeBob,” Doherty told Kidscreen exclusively. “The way puppets move is also more wild and more comedic than in animation, which will appeal to kids. This story also isn’t about educating kids on daily routines, like Daniel Tiger is, but about the adventures Donkey and her friends have.”
Every episode will feature re-imagined versions of Fred Rogers’ songs. Alongside the show’s premiere, the studios will also roll out games and episodes on the PBS KIDS website and the games app, as well as teaching materials and printable activities for educators.
PBS KIDS has a longstanding relationship with Fred Rogers Productions and airs its other shows, including mixed-media series Odd Squad, animated preschool series Peg + Cat and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.
There’s a growing trend in the industry toward kids puppet shows. In 2018, Nat Geo Kids picked up Estudios TeleMexico’s Opa Pupa Dupa, while last year UK’s Pipkin Productions launched Monty & Co and CBeebies commissioned the live-action puppet miniseries Teddles from Blink Productions. Despite this, there’s a big gap in the North American puppet show market, with very few (0% in the US and 1% in Canada) of them airing, according to research published last year by the Center for Scholars and Storytellers out of UCLA and Ryerson University of Toronto.
In other Fred Rogers news, the studio is producing the first Odd Squad podcast titled Odd Squadcast. The serialized audio content centers on a character named The Big O, who hosts a weekly radio address for all of the Odd Squad agents, while also trying to stop some kind of odd occurrence at the headquarters. Launching summer 2020, Squadcast joins a rapidly growing number of podcasts in the kids space, including ones from Pocket.watch, Nat Geo and Marvel.