by Yumiko Ono
(article from The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 9, 1994, Section R11)
Burbank, Calif.- Scriptwriter Sean Roche thumbs through encyclopedias and science book cluttering his small office, hunting hes says, for facts about the sun "that sound cool." He reads that the sun vaporizes 12 billion pound of matter a second, roughly equal to the weight of a million elephants. "Whoahh!" he exclaims, his fingers flying over his computer keyboard. "I love it when it works like this."
This is educational television, Hollywood-style.
The ponytailed Mr. Roche 38 years old [at time of article], is the chief script doctor for "Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego?"- an animated show that is a rare hybrid in the Saturday morning children's schedule. Its creator, the Burbank animation company DIC Entertainment L.P., and News Corp's Fox Children's Network, which airs it, are trying to do what many in the industry have deemed impossible: persuade kids to zap ordinary action cartoons and watch a program that tries to teach them something.
By most measures, Carmen is making headway, with a formula that melds plenty of fast-paced action and computer graphics with a smattering if triva about geography, history, and science. But it isn't easy. "We have to fold in the education so that kids don't see it coming," Mr. Roche says. And each episode must survive persistant conflict about content among everyone involved in production, underscoring the special pressures facing educational programming.
In a world of prolifering channels and program choices, where shows can succeed with narrower slices of audience, educational offerings might seem more likely to survive. But programmers say that isn't the case. Even when children's television doesn't try ot teach, it's a precarious business; only one of every 15 new shows is a hit. More channels mean more competition, so each fraction of a ratings point becomes more precious. And the salient lesson about educational shows, programmers say, is that they don't sell nearly as well as entertainment.
If a channel were to just run educational shows, "I can't see how it could possibly support itself," says Dick Kurlander, vice president, director of programming, at Petry Inc., a New York based company that advises 120 TV stations on their programming decisions and sells ad time for them. "Kids' inclination is not to watch them."
Capital Cities/ABC Inc., had high hopes for "Jim Henson's CityKids," a live-action drama about teenage values introduced last fall. The production company, Jim Henson Inc., had created the Muppets, and the pilot won several awards for effectively addressing morals and ethics. But ratings were so low that ABC cancelled the show in mid-season. Alex Rockell, the program's co-executive producer, says persuading children to watch was harder than she had expected. "I felt like we were serving milk while others were serving milk shakes," she says, "Kids are very savvy about catching their spoonful of medicine."
Dispensing it, however, is getting harder for broadcasters to avoid. Last year, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it was getting serious about enforcing the Children's Television Act of 1990. Broadcasters had to begin airing educational children's programming or risk losing their licenses.
The regulatory pressure comes at an especially inconvient time for networks and their affliate stations. Cable channels such as Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, which aren't subject to the act and include little educational programming in their all-day children's fare, continue to make inroads. And growth in the market is slowing: After serveral years of of double-digit increases, advertising revenues will only rise 5% this season, to an estimated $610 million, for children's network, syndicated and cable shows combined. This has intensified pressure to increase ratings with highly commerical- and often violent programs.
In such a climate, industry officials call the mandate to instruct as well as entertain a bureaucrat's pipe dream. "The government can keep building silver troughs, but that doesn't mena kids will drink out of them," says Martin Franks, a senior vice president of CBS Inc. who handles the network's regulatory affairs in Washington.
So it is often without great enthusiasm that networks are squeezing some educational programs into their Saturday morning schedules and indepenent stations are buying low-budget syndicated programs. More than a dozen new educational shows appeared in the 1993-94 TV season. Most wound up in the ratings cellar.
"It becomes like a cancer in the schedule," says Jon Mandel, a senior vice president of Grey Advertising in New York, describing how unpopular educational shows can drive viewers away from programs surrounding it on the schedule.
"Carmen," however may be pointing the way toward a formula that will satisfy the FCC and draw viewers. Last season, the 13 episode series ranked 9th in the children's rating race, drawing an average of 7% of the 22 million kids ages six to 11 in homes with televison. The most popular Saturday morning show, Fox's "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," earned 9.6% in the same market.
"Carmen" is also benefitting from Fox's campaign to become a juggernaunt in children's TV, which sees it as a major source of profit. Though Fox moved into the market just four years ago, it already dominates Saturday mornings with action-packed cartoons. And while CBS and ABC restrict most of their children's shows to weekends, Fox has assembled a lineup of children's programs for the young after-school crowd. This season, it is going after preschoolers with a 90 minute sequence of educational shows on weekday mornings.
Part of Fox's strategy is expanding its franchise in children's TV by proving that educational shows can deliver profitable ratings, says Margaret Loesch, president of Fox's Children's Network. "We wanted to be effective and entertaining," she says. Industry officials say Fox's push also reflects the need to protect its investment in its high-rated but violent kids' shows.
Fox's strategy and the FCC's new stnace were fortunitous for DIC. The animation company, in which Capital Cities holds a majority stake, had been trying to sell a network on "Carmen" for years, to no avail. Educational shows were anathema until regulators began to talk tough. Last year, Fox snapped up "Carmen."
For a program that children might be able to learn from, "Carmen" had a lot going for it commercially. It was animated- and animation is kids' favorite medium. Many children were already familiar with Carmen, the globe-trotting thief, from the Broderbund Software Inc. computer game and PBS game show called, "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?"
Conflict Over Content
But from the outset, DIC and Fox struggled over the show's direction. Network executives found the tone too didactic and the plot unexciting. "We rejected script after script" from free-lance writers whom the show was depending on heavily says Fox's Ms. Loesch. At one point, she considered cutting the project short, but opted to give it an extra six months in development.
Fox felt that to make kids sit through the lessons, they had to be woven into fast-paced stories. Mr. Roche, who had worked on the TV version of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," was hired to punch up the scripts. To make the characters zip around the screen fast enough for video-savvy young viewers, DIC hired a storyboard artist from Fox's popular "Batman" animated series. Costly computer graphics were added to enhance the visual effects.
Generating the factual trivia became an industry of its own. DIC, whose prior credits include such action series as "G.I. Joe," called in travel experts to dress up the crime scenes with exotic details, while linguists supplied a few appropriate foreign phrases. Academic consultants and researchers were hired to check the accuracy of the scripts and make sure they would be understandable to kids eight to 11 years old.
All this has been a financial drain. DIC has spent $400,000 on each half-hour episode or almost double its budget for other cartoons. "I never thought it would be this expensive to produce," says Andy Heyward, DIC's president. "Things kept adding up until it was too late to go back." After lengthy negotiations, Fox stepped in with $2 million to keep the show in production for this season. Fox officials decline to say whether the show has sold enough ads to recoup cost and turn a profit.
The point man in preparing each episode is Mr. Roche, who shepherds multiple script drafts past the small army of executives and outside consultants who critique them. Today, he taps his computer keyboard feverishly. striving as always for the right mix of action and information.
In an episode scheduled to air [the 94-95] season, [one of Carmen's henchmen, Sara Bellum] turns up in Oregon to make off with the Spruce Goose, Howard Hughes's folly, the world's largest airplane. In the same episode, [Sara] hops to France to steal the world's largest solar furnace, and to Brazil to grab a patch of the rain forest.
Note: The orginal text said that Carmen committed these thefts, so I corrected the information.
To hook young channel surfers, boring facts are kep out of the program's first two minutes. The script- in the second of what ultimately will be six or seven revisions- calls for lots of splashy special effects. Braving a violent storm, [Sara] commandeers the old airplane from a deserted airport.
Mr. Roche needs a quick explanatory aside, or "informer," about the Spruce Goose. He has the animated plane itself deliver it: "With a wingspan of 320 feet, I'm wider than a football field." Then Mr. Roche jots a note to researchers to gather photos of the actual plane, so animators can render it accurately. (Most of the drawings are done in South Korea, where labor is cheaper.)
Fox executives have asked for more scientific information on the sun to introduce the sequence about the French solar furance. Rummaging through his science books, Mr. Roche goes for a three-second comic bit. He has a caricature of Albert Einstein carve out a piece of the sun while noting it's as bringt as 1.5 million candles. Then he remembers that Einstein's knife won't do ("too violent," he explains) and substitutes a pointer instead.
In eschewing violence, "Carmen" stands apart from most commericial children's programming. Fox's own live-action "Power Rangers," which some critics day may be the most violent children's show ever, features karate-kicking teens and robots firing missles at each other. And the superheros in the network's "X-Men," action cartoon are frequently tortured with electric shocks.
Until the early 1980s, things were different. FCC guidelines kept several educational shows on commerical TV, including CBS's "30 Minutes," and the long-running, "Captain Kangaroo." But after the agency scrapped those regulations, these shows were replaced by a slew of toy-sponsored cartoon action shows with merchandising potential. Parents who wanted to make sure their children were watching something that was good for them began to expect to find it only on public television, where ratings don't rule.
The 1990 children's television law initally had little impact on commerical broadcasters: in FCC filings, some independent stations simply listed the cartoon show "The Jetsons" as an educational program that taught children about the year 2000, according to the Center for Media Education in Washington.
But the FCC's get tough stance has begun to change the picture. Though CBS says an offbeat science program called "Beakman's World" had disappointing ratings last season, the network renewed it for this fall. ABC, which gave "Jim Henson's CityKids" no such second chance, hopes for better ratings this season from offerings that include two new educational shows with high built in recognition value: "Free Willy," an animated series of the environmentally oriented theatical movie; and "Fudge," a live-action family show based on a popular series of Judy Blume children's books.
Two years ago, NBC abandoned Saturday morning programming for young children in order to target teenagers. The General Electric Co. unit claims among its educational offerings "Name Your Adventure," which allows selected viewers to meet celebrities while learning about their backrounds and industries: and "Saved by the Bell," a sitcom whose script has been pumped up with such social themes such as teamwork and the accomplishment of goals.
Some of the critics aren't satified. One of them, Peggy Charren, a media critic in Cambridge Mass. who lobbied for the children's television law, says grafting lessons onto an existing sitcom is "probably ineffective."
But broadcasters are largely flying blind. The 1990 law doesn't have clear guidelines about what is or isn't educational. It also doesn't stipulate how much educational programming broadcasters should carry. (Children's advocates are pressing for at least an hour a day.)
Weaving in Information
In this vaccuum, collaborators on "Carmen" sometimes clash over how much information to include in each episode. Writers tend to "focus on entirely on resolving the story," says script consultant Peter Kovaric, director of educational technology at UCLA's graduate school of education. "We try to weave in something informational, so it isn't just standard climax."
His quibble with the Spruce Goose episode is that it's unclear why the plane is in Oregon. "It's in this airport in the middle of nowhere, and there's no explanation of why," he says. "That's the kind of question kids would ask themselves." He urges Mr. Roche to have the characters explain that the plane was recently moved from Southern California to Oregon as a tourist attraction. Mr. Roche, concerned about slowing the action, says he'll consider the addition is there's time.
For all the effort to teach, some critics still fault "Carmen" as too frothy to qualify as educational and too fast-paced to allow children to retain the facts it does impart. Mr. Roche argues that young viewers can catch up during reruns with any facts they miss the first time around. "Carmen," he says, contains as much information as the traffic will bear: "For a show with any entertainment value, we're at the breaking point."
Even adocates of educational television concede as much. Ms. Charren, the media critic, notes that commerical networks, unlike public television, don't get public funding to put on educational shows. "Carmen" isn't exactly a substitute for a textbook, but at least it may spark children's interest in geography, she says adding, "That's as much as you can expect at this point in the history of commericial television."
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