TELEVISION

New hits for kids

Nurturing TV production for young people

DIANE TURBIDE February 6 1989
TELEVISION

New hits for kids

Nurturing TV production for young people

DIANE TURBIDE February 6 1989

New hits for kids

Nurturing TV production for young people

TELEVISION

In one instalment of the popular comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, little Calvin is fixing himself some breakfast as he confides to his friend Hobbes what he loves best about Saturday mornings. “I get up at 6 and eat three bowls of Crunchy Sugar Bombs,” he says, settling in front of the TV. “Then I watch cartoons till noon, and I’m incoherent and hyperactive the rest of the day.” When Hobbes asks about the reaction of Calvin’s parents, the boy replies with a devilish grin, “No brothers or sisters so far.” Calvin’s routine is a standard one in many Canadian households as busy parents let TV provide a few hours’ babysitting. What those children are watching is widely acknowledged to be a wasteland dominated by saccharine cartoon animals and stiff superheroes—often intended only to sell spin-off merchandise. During the 1980s, however, Canadian independent producers, networks and cable channels have been offering an increasing number of quality alternatives. “Canada is far ahead of U.S. broadcasters in its commitment to good children’s television and its ability to produce it,” said Annabel Slaight, executive producer of OWL/ TV. “We are shooting out in front of the pack when it comes to high-quality TV for kids.”

That reputation stems largely from the international success of several independent and

network productions. Such shows as The Kids of Degrassi Street, Degrassi Junior High, OWL/TV, Today’s Special, Sharon, Lois & Bram ’s Elephant Show and various programs from Toronto-based Atlantis Productions have won accolades and viewers around the world. OWL/TV, the acclaimed nature and science series, made its debut in Britain last month, and its producer, the Toronto-based Young Naturalist Foundation, is in the process of setting up The Owl Centre for Children’s Film and Television (box, page 57). Degrassi Junior High, now in its third and final season in Canada, airs in 18 countries, including Britain and the United States.

Its producers are preparing to shoot a new series,

Degrassi High, which will debut on CBC in the fall.

Although producing children’s TV can be prohibitively expensive, the level of activity in Canada is higher than ever. Two highlights among the newer homegrown children’s fare are Babar, an ambitious animated series based on Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff’s widely loved books, and

pilot 1, an exhilarating variety show aimed at teenagers. In the case of Babar, production of the costly 26 episodes was preceded by intricate negotiations to secure financing. Toronto’s Nelvana Productions negotiated agreements with a French copartner and with an American artist who had acquired worldwide animation rights, as well as with the CBC, two new Quebec cable channels and the federal funding agency Telefilm Canada. The result of those efforts became apparent when Babar appeared last month: beautifully rendered in lush colors and humorous details, the show features the storybook characters in their full eccentric glory. The voice of actor Gordon Pinsent as the adult Babar, the elephant ruler of Celesteville in Africa, exudes a reassuring calm befitting a wise king. And the young elephants convey energy and playfulness despite their simply drawn chubby bodies. However, the scripts—which, unlike the stories, focus almost exclusively on Babar’s childhood—are inconsistent. The best episodes offer a strong dramatic narrative, while some seem to replicate the tiresome plots of the worst American sitcoms—a sort of pachyderm version of The Brady Bunch.

By contrast, pilot 1, the CBC teen show that airs on Friday nights at 11:30, is a daring new arrival. Produced in Vancouver and hosted by five young people, the witty hour-long instalments are a showcase for new musical talent, comedy skits, interviews with teens and straightforward sex information. While imitating the look of music videos with its desertedwarehouse set and high-tech graphics, the show offers a highly unusual air of intimacy between the live audience and the hosts. In the second show, cohost and former teen model Karen Campbell delivered a mesmerizing monologue on the unsavory aspects of the modelling business, demystifying the glamor factory in devastating detail. While the skits vary from the lame to the zany, a regular item called “Sex with Sue,” featuring Torontobased broadcaster Sue Johanson, combines lively humor with straight talk on subjects from condoms to masturbation.

For preteens, other network offerings include Blizzard Island (CBC, Sundays, 5:30 p.m.), a fantasy adventure series produced by Halifax-based Studio East and featuring two

preteen children, several puppets and a magic necklace. Toronto-based Sunrise Films’ My Secret Identity (CTV, Fridays, 7:30 p.m.), a series that was unveiled last fall about a boy who can fly, has been syndicated in the United States despite mixed reviews at home. Another CTV show, last December’s delightfully comic Christmas presentation St. Nicholas and the Children, was picked up by the BBC and is the pilot for a projected series called Wondertales, produced by Toronto-based O’B&D Films. Despite those signs of vig-

orous creativity, there is still a dearth of good children’s shows. “Good programming is expensive to produce, and there just isn’t enough money around to do it,” said OWL/TV’s Slaight. She and other producers identify as a major problem the low licence fees for children’s programs—the amount paid by broadcasters to independent producers for the right to run their shows. “It takes about $200,000 to produce an episode of OWL/TV, but it will only earn about $25,000 from a broadcaster—and that’s top dollar,” said Slaight. She adds that low licence fees reflect the fact that children’s shows, because of their time slots, generate less advertising revenue than prime-time fare. Angela Bruce, CBC head of development for children’s programming, agrees, but says that the situation is slowly improving for shows aimed at older children. “As some of our programs get noticed internationally,” she added, “the network gives us more access to prime-time slots.”

Degrassi Junior High—the award-winning dramatic series about the world of adolescents—benefited dramatically when it moved from an afternoon slot to Mondays at 8:30 p.m. in the fall of 1988. The show now has an audience of more than one million—and at times close to two million—young and adult viewers in Canada alone. Noted for fine acting and intelligent scripts, it won four 1988 Gemini awards and a 1987 International Emmy.

Despite that success, says producer Linda Schuyler, financing remains a challenge. Playing With Time, the Toronto-based production company that she co-owns with partner Kit Hood, is now preparing to shoot a sequel series to Degrassi Junior High. “We’re constantly battling the perception that shows for small people mean small budgets,” Schuyler said. “Children are very discriminating viewers, and you need high production values. And good scripts take a lot of development time, which means money.” She added that fund-raising became more difficult after 1987, when the

federal government removed the 100-per-cent tax writeoff for investment in Canadian movies and television shows.

The difficulties faced by most independent producers have also affected the new cable channels specializing in fare for the young. Two new channels went on the air last September— YTV, a basic-cable station aimed at young peo-

ple, and the Family Channel, a pay TV service geared to family viewing—offering 18 and 19 hours respectively of programming daily. YTV president Kevin Shea says that, while his channel will exceed its mandate to produce 40 hours of original Canadian programming per year, it will accomplish that only by using nondramatic series. An enduring problem, Shea says, is the

shortage of good TV drama for teens. But he added: “We have $2 million to invest in new dramatic series, and we are seeking proposals from independent producers. The door is wide open.”

The Family Channel (FC), jointly owned by Edmonton-based Allarcom Pay Television Ltd. and Montreal’s Astral Bellevue Communications Inc., is required by the CRTC to fill only one-quarter of its program schedule with original Canadian productions (60 per cent comes from the U.S. pay TV Disney Channel). But FC president Susan Rubes, founder of Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre, says that the channel has already aired the premières of several Canadian productions that never found a niche on the regular networks. Rubes added, “We have money invested in five dramatic and nondramatic series produced by Canadian independents, with one shooting in the spring and another this summer.”

Broadcasters and independent producers all point to f the increasing need for co| productions to underwrite o the costs of quality shows. As well, they say, Telefilm Canada must continue its financial support to independent producers. “Things are a lot better now than 10 years ago, and we’re getting stronger every day,” said Schuyler. “But we’re still a relatively new industry that requires nurturing.” Like the audience it serves, Canadian children’s television is still maturing.

DIANE TURBIDE