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ABC Ink

By Dawn Shurmaitis

kicker: ABC and Disney work together to attract kids (and ratings!) to “One Saturday Morning”

Next Saturday morning, stay in your pajamas, grab a bowl of Captain Crunch and hunker down in front of the TV. For a few hours, forget about the mortgage and the chores and take a trip back into kidville. Without breaking any parental rules, turn on the tube and eavesdrop on kids conversation. Cruise along with characters like Pepper Ann, Doug and the “Recess” gang as they navigate those perilous childhood shoals. You’ll laugh, and you just might learn something.

The learning part is significant because this year, a huge event occurred in kids television that required ABC to rethink its entire approach. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began requiring all TV networks to air three hours of educational programming per week. ABC not only embraced the concept, it did the FCC one better. The network offers four hours of educational programs centered around a unique block of programming dubbed “One Saturday Morning.”

Partnered with Disney, ABC managed a double whammy: cartoons that educate and amuse. Educators cheered. Pundits applauded. And the kids? When the new season premiered, they came in droves, helping ABC win the Saturday morning ratings war for the first time in four years. Within the first four weeks of the new season, ABC had the No. 1,2 or 3 shows on Saturday. Analysts say ABC’s rise is especially noteworthy because the network has no afternoon kids block to cross-promote with “Saturday Morning,” unlike cable rivals like Fox and Kids’ WB.

ABC has two key goals on Saturday — to create programming that families will want to watch together, and to provide a safe haven for kids. “We decided to celebrate Saturday morning and sell it back to kids,” says Gerry Laybourne, president of Disney/ABC cable networks and the overseer of children’s programming. “We had to put the creator back into the creation. You can’t just have toy-based characters.”

The gambit is paying off. So far, ratings are up as much as 45 percent over last year. And on January 10, the network delivered its highest audience levels in three years: an average of 1.5 million kids aged 2-11 per half-hour. But Laybourne has found an even greater indicator of the success of “One Saturday Morning” — kids who watch so much and so often they’ve memorized the words to the theme song.

“What’s extraordinary to me is that we created two brand-new shows with brand-new characters that within four weeks are in the top 10 of children’s programming,” Laybourne says.

“One Saturday Morning” is run as a partnership between ABC and Disney. Put simply, Disney creates the cartoons, and ABC puts them on the air. The joint network-studio initiative is run primarily by Jonathan Barzilay, VP and GM, ABC Children’s Programming, and Barry Blumberg, senior VP, TV animation, The Walt Disney Company.

“This is a great example of two divisions working well together,” Laybourne says. “Jonathan Barzilay is doing a spectacular job of balancing the network, the FCC and educational issues while maintaining a superior relationship with the Disney studio. Barry Blumberg is passionate about protecting his creators, and that’s really what you need.”

SUBHED: Playground of the Mind

The producers of “Recess” laughingly refer to their cartoon as a “Taxi” for kids. To create that childhood camaraderie, producers Joe Ansolabehere and Paul Germain assembled a unique cast of cartoon characters with a surreal twist. There’s the guru kid and the swinger kid, the hustler kid and the diggers, a pair of third graders always seen digging their way to China. The chief theme is that the best way to survive is with a little help from your friends.

“We want kids who watch ‘Recess’ to feel that they can make it,” Ansolabehere says. “In ‘Recess,’ we tell stories about how you contend with the harsh world out there, how to be a friend and how to stand up for yourself and other people.”

Scoring, and keeping, such ace producers falls to Barzilay and Blumberg. The duo shares a keen interest in baseball, music and comedy. According to Blumberg, such similar sensibilities have served them well since partnering to reinvent Saturday morning. Part of their success, he says, lies in their ability to recognize, and nurture, talent.

“We have fantastic producers like Peter Hastings and Sue Rose, and we try not to dilute the producers vision,” Blumberg says from his L.A. office. “Kids like stuff that’s well done and stuff that’s smart. In the case of ‘Recess’ and ‘Pepper Ann,’ we have a high level of verbalization and intellectual humor.”

From Disney’s standpoint, Saturday morning is an opportunity to reinvent the brand to a new generation of kids who have largely grown up on cable. For ABC, the merger with Disney gave the much-needed firepower to entice kids away from cable rivals like Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network. The challenges are enormous. Last year, advertisers spent $317 million on cable, nearly as much as they spent on the four networks, according to industry advertising research. ABC’s answer was to create an environment, and a loyalty, among kids by offering much more than the standard collection of shows.

” ‘One Saturday Morning’ is a big idea and it couldn’t have been executed without a real partnership between the network and the studio,” says Barzilay, who first joined ABC as a member of the network’s legal department. He’s now part of the team Laybourne assembled nearly two years ago to turn Saturday morning around.

“We faced a challenge, with competition from programmers like Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network, who target kids seven days a week. That’s a powerful advantage to a kids audience that thrives on routine,” Barzilay says from his New York office. “Our answer was to create an environment on Saturday morning compelling to attract kids and lively enough to keep them all morning.”

Rather than expand or repeat what’s already on television, the team created something brand new. Here’s how it works: ABC airs five hours of kids programming each Saturday. Anchoring that time period is a distinct, two-hour block called “Disney’s One Saturday Morning.” Featured within that block are three weekly series: “Disney’s Doug,” “Pepper Ann” and “Recess” as well as a zany assortment of mainly educational shorts.

The new format is centered around a building called “One Saturday Morning,” the place where Saturdays get made. Creator Peter Hastings describes the building, crafted on a virtual reality set in California, as “Wonderama meets David Letterman.” The idea is to make the building a place where kids must be on Saturdays. Hosts, recurring characters and animated bits round out the hours between 8:30-10:30 a.m. ET. To tie it all together, the distinct imagery of “One Saturday Morning” is used throughout the five-hour block. “We’re trying very deliberately to reverse the long-standing erosion of kids viewing from broadcast to cable by creating destination TV — literally,” Barzilay says.

The synergy concept is working all around. ABC asked Eleo Hensleigh, senior VP, marketing, at The Disney Channel, to handle on-air promotion for Saturday morning and to design a new logo. “We turned to Eleo and her team for their expertise in brand-building and marketing to kids,” Barzilay says. “They have done an outstanding job translating the ‘One Saturday Morning’ message into a lively on-air promotional presence.”

ABC also works closely with Sheraton Kalouria, an ABC alum who is now director of marketing for Disney franchise programming on the network. Kalouria coordinates marketing for both “One Saturday Morning” and “The Wonderful World of Disney.” He helped ABC’s launch by coordinating a paid media campaign plus a big promotion with Toys R Us.

The tactics are paying off. Last month, ABC began conducting very successful sales meetings with advertisers for the annual “upfront” selling period. If more evidence is needed, turn to the break-out hit “Mrs. Munger’s Class,” also created by Hastings. In focus group testing, the dials monitoring kids’ reactions hit the “100” mark during the Munger segments, a reading the testing facility had not previously registered.

SUBHED: Too Cool to be Twelve

Pepper Ann is in a philosophical mood. “Would you rather go backwards or forwards in time? Just wondering. If you could eat only one food for every single meal for the next five years, what would it be? Hmmmm.”

Each time the 12-year-old centerpiece of the “Pepper Ann” cartoon takes to the tube, she brings a bevy of “tween-age” girls along with her for the ride. Admired by TV critics for her quirky outlook on childhood, Pepper Ann is just one of ABC’s popular Saturday morning characters.

“Pepper Ann is a strong female role model to girls and boys,” says the 12-year-old’s alter ego, creator Sue Rose. “She’s a kid — a typical kid. Pepper Ann’s not satisfied with the answer of ‘just because.’ She has to find out things on her own.”

“One Saturday Morning” is creator driven, which means the cartoons rely heavily on a personal style of animation. Both “Pepper Ann” and “Brand Spanking New Doug” are based on their creators, Rose and Jim Jinkins, who’ve drawn on their own childhood experiences. Laybourne counts herself among their biggest fans. “The fact that we found a female animator with a character who is living inside her is miraculous. I’ve been on a search for years,” Laybourne says. “Sue Rose is quirky and feisty and thoroughly Pepper Ann.” When Laybourne discusses “Doug,” she calls it “probably the most important show on television” because it is a great role model for boys.

The best part of “Recess” — according to Laybourne — is the program’s ability to zone in on what fourth and fifth grade is really like. “These stories come out of real people, real children. That’s incredible. I like the fact that we have children’s programs with flexible thinking, problem-solving and cognitive content,” Laybourne says. “Kids need role models.”

SUBHED: Order, and Laughs, in the Court

“Science Court” is in session. The judge is presiding over a trial to determine whether water is, indeed, found in air. The defense and the prosecution present evidence, raise questions and examine various scientific theories.

In the end, the judge (whose voice is provided by comedienne Paula Poundstone) provides a nifty explanation of condensation while ruling that water is found in air.

The program, created by former science teacher Tom Snyder, serves an important dual purpose: it’s hilarious, and educational. Saturday morning cartoons must do more than amuse kids, sell cereal and increase ratings. They must also satisfy new FCC educational requirements that demand at least three hours per week of educational programs for viewers under 16. The rules grew out of concerns that too many children’s programs were violent and/or blatantly created to sell toys.

The requirements are broad, which means programs like “Science Court” can teach kids about a wide array of scientific principles, while “Pepper Ann” can tackle tougher, more emotional issues like divorce and peer pressure. And, twice each Saturday, ABC airs the Emmy Award-winning “Schoolhouse Rock” musical vignettes that teach kids about math, grammar, science, history and finance.

The result? Cartoons that keep the kids coming while making parents, and the FCC, happy. While ABC has proven successful, other networks have suffered. CBS tried to satisfy the new requirements through more live action shows. Its ratings are down more than 60 percent over last year.

 Of ABC’s “Science Court,” one educator says, “it breaks new ground in the way it combines humor with educational content.” To reach that Saturday morning nirvana, ABC employed a wide range of educational consultants, from Harvard’s Project Zero to the head mistress of an all-girls school in L.A.

 “We’re proud that we went out of our way to attract educational consultants who deal with kids on a daily basis,” Barzilay says. “We’re proud of the diversity of the educators who work with us. Different kids learn in different ways, and we wanted to address everyone’s needs.”

 The educators help ABC determine which story premise is the most promising, from an educational standpoint. The consultants, who are paid, offer input from the first draft to the finished script. “The consultants feel the same pride in the shows that we do,” Barzilay says.

 Laybourne credits Dr. John Arnold of North Carolina State University with getting her involved in children’s television. The two met well before Laybourne entered graduate school, when she was working for an architecture firm. His advocacy and enthusiasm for kids was infectious,” Laybourne says.

 Arnold advocated thinking of the new FCC mandate as an opportunity to find new ways of helping kids understand the world around them. The formula worked. No one expected the shows to click with kids as quickly as they did.

 “It’s unprecedented,” Barzilay says. “These are brand-new shows in the hearts and minds of American kids.”

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 “One Saturday Morning” includes:

* Great Minds Think for Themselves. Robin Williams reprises his celebrated Genie role from “Aladdin” to offer his educational and hilarious take on 14 famous historical figures, from Einstein to Cesar Chavez.

* Manny the Uncanny. An inquisitive character who goes out into the world to see what people are doing. No matter where he visits — a karate studio, a skateboard manufacturer — he offers his own, fresh perspective.

* The Monkey Boys. A four-minute ode to silent-era slapstick that owes a lot to “The Three Stooges.” The two “monkey boys” get themselves into trouble during each episode and always end up annihilating whatever room they’re in. Pure silliness.

* Mrs. Munger’s Class. A page straight out of a 6th-grade yearbook — literally. By animating just the mouths of class pictures, the students interact with each other and their teacher, carrying on outlandish conversation. The popular tag line is “Simmer! Simmer!” which is what Mrs. Munger says whenever the class gets unruly.

* What’s Up With That? An educational segment that features a young, hip professor who offers quick, informative facts.

 

 

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