WITH its latest effort to both educate and entertain young TV viewers, the Children's Television Workshop has ventured into terra incognita. The New York-based production company has had a long string of acclaimed shows on public TV, including ``Sesame Street,'' ``3-2-1 Contact,'' ``Square One TV,'' and ``Ghostwriter.'' But its new creation, ``Cro,'' is running on commercial television, in partnership with and airing on ABC.
In addition to the new tie with a commercial network, CTW has veered away from its longtime preference for programs with live actors. ``Cro,'' which premiered in mid-September, is a cartoon. The lead character is a adventurous Cro-Magnon boy living in a village of good-hearted but none-too-bright Neanderthals. The real geniuses in the neighborhood are the wooly mammoths. One of them, Phil, reappears in modern times in the company of scientific colleagues Doctor C and Mike after being thawed from an iceberg. Phil's commentary on the old days leads into various episodes.
It's a far-fetched and somewhat complicated premise, but one that CTW and ABC hope will provide enough humor (springing mainly from the antics of a gang of dire-wolf bad guys) to hold Saturday-morning audiences while delivering a few gulps of science instruction.
The response from some of those who closely follow children's television has been less than positive.
Diana Huss Green, editor-in-chief of Parents' Choice Quarterly in Newton, Mass., says ``We really expected more.'' In her view, the new show is not up to the standards of past CTW productions, but she sees the collaboration with a commercial network as hopeful in any case. ``The fact that ABC went for it is quite commendable.''
Peggy Charren, a longtime advocate for better children's television, suspects there was ``entirely too much collaboration... . They [CTW] paid too much homage to the commercial broadcasters' idea of what you have to do to get kids to watch.'' She, like Ms. Green, is confident that the show will improve as its creators continue to work on it - and if it survives the network's cut.
CTW has not sold its soul to make it big on network television, asserts Franklin Getchell, the company's senior vice president for programming and production. The motivation was to expand the workshop's audience:
``We decided, basically, that we wanted to reach as many kids as we could reach with our type of show.''
The best way to do that, Mr. Getchell says, was to break into the Saturday-morning cartoon lineup - ``through what kids already liked,'' Mr. Getchell says. That is, ``cartoons with funny, appealing characters and narrative story lines.''
Recent activism by private groups, regulators, and congressional reformers is aimed at forcing Saturday-morning network programmers toward more constructive fare. Critics of commercial broadcasting say it has failed its obligation, under the Children's Television Act of 1990, to provide educational and informative programming for youngsters.
THE CTW-ABC deal began months before the latest wave of such criticism, Getchell says.
``We were ahead of all that,'' agrees Edward Atkins, CTW's executive editor and content director for ``Cro.'' ``But now we're in a competitive environment where some of the other networks have educational shows, too.'' CBS has ``Beakman's World,'' which tries to communicate scientific concepts in an engaging way with live actors. There's also a syndicated program, ``Bill Nye the Science Guy.''
The head of children's programming at ABC, Jennie Trias, says she had courted CTW for years. Ms. Trias recalls numerous meetings with CTW development people in New York. Her message, she says, was: ``Everyone's always complaining about what's on Saturday morning. Why don't you guys become part of the solution?''
ABC has been ``quite good'' about letting CTW arrive at its own balance of educational content and entertainment, says Mr. Atkins.
More often that not, debates over content arose during discussion with the animators at Film Roman Inc., a Los Angeles-based company that has produced such hits as ``The Simpsons'' and ``Garfield and Friends.''
``There's a kind of style and thinking they have that isn't necessarily ours,'' says Atkins, with a hint of understatement. The CTW executives say they were able to preserve the educational thrust of the show, but Atkins admits that ``for us, this is a little bit on the other side of the spectrum.'' He observes, for instance, that the humor and action in ``Cro'' sometimes involves ``a little bit of mayhem.'' He adds, however, that the parent panels that previewed the show didn't criticize it on that score.
Getchell notes that unlike CTW's fare for PBS, ``Cro'' does not insert themes or humor that may appeal to adults as well as kids. With a virtually all-child audience on Saturday mornings, that ``bi-level'' appeal was considered less important.
A hallmark of CTW programs has been the integration of educational matter with entertaining stories or sketches. ``Cro'' continues this tradition, as in the initial episode about how sound is produced by vibration (the prehistoric crowd decides to form a band). Other shows dealt with flight, boats and flotation, friction, pulleys and gears, and measurement.
Young viewers will have the added distraction of commercials breaking up the show, but Atkins thinks children will still get the message about science and technology.
``You have to give a lot of credit to kids,'' he says. ``They're able to separate this stuff pretty much as we'd like them to.''