Los Angeles Times, March 23, 1994, Sec.F p 1
It wouldn't have happened without congressional demands for more educational programming, but Fox, the network know for such Saturday morning "actions" hits as "X-Men" and the karate-kicking "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers," is finding gold in a new cartoon about geography.
A strong competitor since it began airing after "X-Men" in February is "Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego?," based on Broderbund Software Inc.'s educational computer game phenomenon, in which players must locate super-thief Carmen Sandiego, her henchmen and stolen loot through geographical and historical clues.
The cartoon show, from Burbank-based DIC Entertainment, is a creative combination of computer and traditional cel animation, photo stills, educational factoids and action. Compared with Fox's usual cartoon fare, its violence quotient is low. That may testify to Broderbund's creative approval over the content, so that it is "appropriate to the game and the character of Carmen," according to Ken Goldstein, Broderbund's consultant on the show.
Even Peggy Charron, the out-spoken founder of Action for Children's Televison, is impressed.
"When I found out that DIC animated it...I fully expected it to look like 'X-Men,'" she said in an interview, "I have seen a lot of shows get devastated by bad animation and some of it looks like it leaps onto the screen without a writer. Given that Fox puts out some of my least favorite cartoons, I was prepared not to like it."
Instead, "it's nicely animated," Charren said, "and they put a lot of education into a cartoon...and they have a lot of words on the screen, so it helps promote reading. I think they did a terrific job."
Andy Heywood, president of DIC, who optioned "Carmen" two years ago as a toon property but found network interest lukewarm, is candid about why the show finally sold.
"I would like to say that people felt it was a competitive property in its own right," Heywood said, "but I think that [Congress] pushed it over the top."
Margaret Loesch, president of the Fox Children's Television Network readily concurs, "Because of the Children's Television Act, we were actively looking for something that would be more curriculm oriented than our pure entertainment programs."
Loesch, who has made no secrets of her reservations about federally mandated children's programming, stressed, "I never said you couldn't be educationsl. The point I was trying to make was that if you do not attend to the entertainment content of a show, you will not be competitive."
In the case of "Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?," Fox postponed the premire for six months "in order to get it right," Loesch said.
In the cartoon version, Carmen (voiced by Rita Moreno) each week "steals the unstealable," such as Stonehenge or the Taj Mahal's roof. Hot on her trail are Carmen's chief protagonist, teen sleuth Ivy, who's powerful and smart, and her younger brother Zack. The female leads, in a genre dominated by male heros and villains, are another Saturday morning rarity.
Through dialogue and on-screen text, viewers are given historical, cultural, and geographical tidbits pertinent to the objects stolen and the locales visited.
The show's greatest challenge is ensuring accuracy- from the factual descriptions to the visuals to the foreign languages that are heard when the action shifts to other countries. Accordingly, DIC employs several consultants. Besides Broderbund's Goldstein, they include, Peter Kovaric of UCLA's Graduate School of Education; Barbara Wong, principle of Baldwin Middle School in Alhambra; a travel writer; language experts; and three full time researchers.
The men at DIC most responsible for taking the consultants' input and turning it into an entertaining package are Robby London, vice president of creative affairs; producer Mike Maliani; director Joe Barruso and story editor Sean Roche.
"In the game you can just say Carmen stole the Taj Mahal or the Eiffel Tower or whatever," Maliani said. "We have to figure out how ."
In the Taj Mahal episode, for example, researchers first estimated the weight of the roof, then found some Soviet-made heavy-lifting helicopters that could conceivably do the job. The artists took it from there.
To ensure visual accuracym artist work from photgraphs of all interior and exterior locations. Barruso, accustomed to telling his artists to "go out and draw whatever your heart desires" said that now "you're looking at two days of research before anything could be handed over to the artists."
"The trick is to keep it interesting, " said Roche, "to keep finding ways to fold the facts into it in a kind of stealth learning approach to education and entertainment. We try to kick off every episode with an action packed theft to hook our audience, as imaginative a heist as we can come up with."
Just how much real education can children pick up from a half-hour cartoon?
In a recent meeting, London said, "That was the key question. How many facts are too many, how fast should they go and what are kids absorbing?
"Our thought was to pack the shows extra full and maybe they won't catch everything the first time, but hopefully, by the time they've seen the show four times [in reruns], they will."
The Fox cartoon is just the latest incarnation of Broderbund's hugley successful "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" computer game series. Over eight years, more than 3.5 million units of the eight titles have been sold. The series has also spawned a popular PBS game show and a lenghty list of licenses for music, clothing, accessories, toys and games.
That a geography game could grab such attention "came as a tremendous surprise," Goldstein said. "It was not planned in the board room as a major marketing assault. It was discovered by the public" - first by teachers, then when students demanded their own copies of the game, by parents.
So where is Carmen Sandiego? "Basically," Goldstein said, "Carmen is everywhere."
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