TELEVISION

Nature through the eyes of a child

ANN FINLAYSON November 4 1985
TELEVISION

Nature through the eyes of a child

ANN FINLAYSON November 4 1985

Nature through the eyes of a child

TELEVISION

In the wasteland of children's television, OWL/TV is one of the few oases of intelligence and originality. With its irresistible blend of lively animation, abundant jokes and adventurous young people, the series—which debuts on Nov. 5 on CBC TV—demonstrates that educational programs can also be fun. Like OWL magazine, the upbeat monthly publication on which it is based, OWL/TV is dedicated to whetting preteen curiosity about science and nature. The 10part Canadian-made show, which also appears next week on more than 300 U.S. Public Broadcasting System (PBS) affiliates, will explain everything from snake venom to the problems of handicapped children to an estimated eight million viewers. Said OWL’s cofounder and publisher, Annabel Slaight: “OWL/TV was a gamble, but there was no sense in making the show unless it was of international quality.”

Launched 10 years ago, Toronto-based OWL magazine broke new ground in children’s publishing with a colorful, scattergun approach to nature that borrows heavily from television. With its appeal to a generation more familiar with Big Bird than Anne of Green Gables, the nonprofit magazine has gained about 100,000 readers in French and English Canada. OWL/TV translates the magazine’s unique blend of whimsy and educational enlightenment into a television format. Each episode intersperses cartoon segments with serious features—including appearances by Bonapart, a wisecracking skeleton who demonstrates how the human body works. Supervising producer Paulle Clark insisted on visual complexity and fast pacing when she discovered that young people “can absorb 75 per cent more of what they see on television than adults can.”

Clark and executive producer Slaight were especially committed to appealing to children’s curiosity while presenting natural and social realities without compromise. They used consultants to recruit children from several ethnic groups in shooting locales throughout North America. Said Clark: “Our premise was that we would let the kids follow their own interests and present ideas in a hands-on way.” On hand to guide young viewers are the “Mighty Mites,” three young characters who have the ability to shrink to microscopic size. While exploring a pond during the first show, the trio calmly observes a menacing water beetle gobble up a tadpole which they had been admiring, accepting the situation as an inevitable part of nature. In another feature, Ontario naturalist Kay McKeever feeds bloody morsels of minced mouse to an injured owl. Said Slaight: “Kids tend to say, ‘Well, them’s the breaks,’ but we expect some criticism from adults.”

The program has become much more elaborate than its original concept. Three years ago Slaight approached U.S. networks with a pilot for a science show featuring Dr. Zed, the magazine’s cartoon scientist. PBS consultants were pleased but they suggested that the magazine could provide the basis for a much more ambitious project. “Suddenly we were talking about a show on the scale of Sesame Street, ” recalled Slaight, who taught elementary school in England and Vancouver before entering children’s publishing. “We breathed deeply and added a few zeros to our bottom line.”

Slaight and Clark quickly assembled a production team to create a new pilot with $100,000 in seed money from PBS.

When the new program was half completed, the New York-based National Audubon Society signed on as coproducer, easing some of the financial pressure. It also loaned its scientific advisers and respected name to the project—but left creative control in Canadian hands. PBS officials approved the show on first viewing, and later both the CBC and Telefilm Canada became involved. Networks in several European countries are now negotiating to buy the series.

OWL/TV may open a new market in the United States for OWL magazine and Chickadee, its companion publication for younger children. Said Slaight, who is president of The Young Naturalist Foundation, which publishes both magazines: “It would have cost millions to launch OWL in the United States on its own. The television show makes it all possible.” Meanwhile, the OWL team is mapping out 16 new shows at a cost of about $150,000 each, and PBS officials have told Slaight that they consider OWL/TV on its way to becoming a network staple. Said Slaight: “For three years we were very quiet because we were afraid we might fall flat on our faces.” With 10 episodes poised to soar across the continent, OWL/TV is now looking up.

— ANN FINLAYSON in Toronto