Children's Features

Book-Based Cartoons Hit PBS
Karen Raugust -- 9/18/00
The Bookworm Bunch, a programming block for preschoolers, is a first for PBS Saturday mornings

On September 30, PBS will debut the PBS Kids Bookworm Bunch, its inaugural Saturday morning children's programming block that will feature three hours of animated series based on children's books. The six half-hour shows are inspired by Don Freeman's Corduroy (Viking); Rosemary Wells's Timothy G s to School (Viking); four books featuring the character Elliot Moose by Andrea Beck (Kids Can Press); Seven Little Monsters, written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, published by Harper & Row in 1977 and currently out of print; William Joyce's George Shrinks (HarperCollins/ Geringer); and Betty and Michael Paraskevas's Marvin the Tap Dancing Horse, to be released by Simon & Schuster in May 2001. The corporate underwriter for the entire block is Hasbro's Playskool brand.

In This Article:
Plus, Bookworm Bunch Tie-Ins

Evolution of a Programming BlockIn June 1999, PBS senior v-p of programming services John Wilson met with Toper Taylor, president of Canadian animation house Nelvana. "We both identified a need [for age-appropriate preschool programming on Saturday mornings] that wasn't being met by other broadcasters," said Wilson. "There aren't a lot of choices for parents of little kids."

The partnership between the two companies was "a really natural fit," Wilson continued, noting that both have a history of success with literature-based programming. PBS has long aired book-based shows on weekdays, ranging from Arthur and The Magic School Bus (coproduced by Nelvana) to the most recent examples, Clifford the Big Red Dog and Caillou, both of which premiered on September 4.

Nelvana's productions include The Disney Channel's Rolie Polie Olie, based on a William Joyce story; Nick Jr.'s Franklin, inspired by a book series by Paulette Bourgeois, illustrated by Brenda Clark, and published by Kids Can Press (a Nelvana subsidiary); and Else Holmelund Minarik and Maurice Sendak's Little Bear, also on Nick Jr. "Nelvana has made a career out of adapting children's books for television," said Taylor, reporting that 80% of the company's development slate, consisting of 100 different projects, is comprised of literature-based series. "We were able to get the confidence and trust of a number of authors who had never had their words adapted to television," he said.

An Emphasis on Books
The full cast of characters from
the six forthcoming shows.
All the living authors of the books on which the Bookworm Bunch TV series are based have been involved in the development of the television shows. "We work very closely with the authors," said Taylor. "We really want the experience on television to mirror the design style, attitude and characteristics of the book. The authors review, read and comment on every script and read and comment on every storyboard. They help us choose the voices and the theme music and the design of the show and the characters and the backgrounds. They're really, in essence, consultants on all the elements of the show."
Publishers of the original titles are helping promote the Bookworm Bunch--books will be stickered with a tune-in message, for example--and are, in turn, taking advantage of the exposure generated by the block's launch to increase awareness of their titles. Each publishing house, along with representatives of PBS, Nelvana and the other licensors, and key licensees and promotional partners, met in New York City last week to share informational updates about licensing and publishing schedules and retail events, and discussed promotional opportunities to support the programming block and the books.

Jill Newhouse Calcaterra, Nelvana's v-p of marketing, noted that toy retailer FAO Schwarz will feature all the available books associated with the Bookworm Bunch, as well as some tie-in merchandise, in the first quarter of 2001, and the store is expected to bring in some of the authors for signings, possibly including Wells, the lead "spokesauthor" for the block. Nelvana is in discussion with other retail outlets, including book chains, about boutiquing Bookworm Bunch-related books and merchandise in-store; the company's marketing department has put together a sell sheet touting all the books on which the shows are based.

Publishers are also highlighting their related titles independently. Penguin Putnam created a sell sheet promoting four Timothy and two Corduroy titles "as seen on PBS Kids Bookworm Bunch." It is featuring Timothy in a back-to-school activity kit, on a "My Best Friends Live in Books" poster, as a wipe board standee, on sticker sheets and as temporary tattoos; is giving the character its own area within Penguin Putnam's Web site; and is making costumed characters available for store appearances. In November, the Store of Knowledge will run an exclusive Timothy promotion to spotlight Penguin's books and Eden Toys' plush figures. Penguin Putnam is also offering for giveaways Timothy/Corduroy canvas tote bags that incorporate the Bookworm Bunch logo.

Many of the Bookworm Bunch-affiliated book titles are already strong sellers. Since the first Corduroy book was published in 1968, more than 6.3 million Corduroy titles in all formats--including hardcovers, paperbacks, lift-the-flap, sticker and activity books, and book-and-cassette sets--are in print, according to Penguin Putnam. Tim-othy G s to School boasts more than 200,000 copies in print in all formats since its 1981 launch, including a reillustrated version published in July. (The Timothy show also incorporates characters from other Wells titles, including Noisy Nora and Yoko.)

The first Elliot title, Elliot's Emergency, was published in 1998 and has 50,000 copies in print in the U.S. and Canada, while Elliot Bakes a Cake, the second book in the series, has reached an in-print figure of 36,000 copies. The fourth and latest Elliot title, Elliot's Bath, is currently available in Canada and will be published in the U.S. next spring.

Two of the TV series in the Bookworm Bunch (which ones are still undetermined) will expand to five days a week sometime in 2002; new programs will take over their Saturday slots at that time. While the configuration of the Bookworm Bunch will change over the three years of PBS's initial commitment, all the new series will--like the six current shows--be animated, original to television and based on children's books.

Bookworm Bunch Tie-Ins Some of the literature-based TV shows in the Bookworm Bunch programming block are likely to come full circle, in a sense, by inspiring tie-in books of their own. Robin Corey, v-p and publisher of novelty books and media tie-ins for Simon & Schuster, which will release any Bookworm Bunch tie-in titles under its PBS Kids license, says future publishing will probably focus on the two properties that are eventually chosen to expand to a five-days-a-week schedule in 2002 (see article). Potential formats range from board books, 8 x 8 storybooks and ready-to-read titles to episode adaptation storybooks and lift-the-flap books.The television shows that ultimately jump to weekday airings will have the best chance of generating significant merchandise licensing activity, although the licensors of the six properties are currently pondering niche opportunities such as plush toys or exclusive deals with specialty retailers.
Nelvana holds licensing rights for four of the programs: Elliot Moose, Marvin the Tap Dancing Horse, Seven Little Monsters and George Shrinks. "They're all viable, merchandisable properties," said Sid Kaufman, Nelvana's executive v-p, worldwide merchandising. Most current activity centers on Elliot, since that TV series has been on the air in Canada prior to its U.S. premiere. Plush-toy maker Learning Curve and clothing manufacturer Children's Apparel Network are two of the property's leading licensees.
Viacom Consumer Products handles licensing for Corduroy, while Silver Lining Entertainment oversees Timothy (as well as Rosemary Wells's Yoko, from a Hyperion book of the same name, who appears in the Timothy TV program). Eden Toys has been on board for three years as the licensee for Corduroy plush and other items; it also will market Timothy plush and accessories. Other Timothy licensees include Peaceable Kingdom for greeting cards and Galison/Mudpuppy Press for puzzles and photo albums.
Although each property is being licensed separately, Nelvana and the other licensors are sharing information and working together on possible cross-merchandising opportunities.
--Karen Raugust