It's aimed at preschoolers, but the Cartoon Network's new "Big Bag" series isn't just another "Sesame Street," says children's TV activist and consultant Peggy Charren.
The renowned advocate of better kids' TV is a vocal fan of "Sesame Street," but when she heard that its creator, the Children's Television Workshop (CTW), was going to produce its first TV series for preschoolers since launching that pioneering show 27 years ago, "I was afraid the new series might be just like it, and I don't think we need one," Ms. Charren says. "But it's a different kind of program, and it's very good."
A collaboration between cable's Cartoon Network and CTW, "Big Bag" debuts Sunday, June 2, at 9 a.m. The commercial-free weekly program combines live action, puppets, and lots of high-quality animated "shorties."
As with "Sesame Street," the new one-hour series seeks to instruct as well as entertain through the use of Muppets created by Henson Productions, animation, and the proven capability of CTW. But "Sesame Street" is best known for imparting cognitive skills like letters, words, and numbers, while "Big Bag" strives to teach not the lessons of school but the lessons of life.
It's a kind of "Sesame Street" of social development, with the same inventive and exuberant feel but this time with the stress on feelings and how best to get along with others and with yourself - a trickier and more difficult subject. Attitudes like cooperation, tolerance, and trust are encouraged as the program works to develop the imaginations of its small viewers through the use of common household objects.
The Cartoon Network is a commercial channel, so the airing of this series without commercials is a move that many kid-TV advocates hope is an idea whose time has come. They say it marks an important and perhaps promising step into unfamiliar territory by the kind of ad-free instructive fare once seen almost solely on the public medium.
"It's terrific to see the show happening without ads," says Charren, while acknowledging that it will remain inaccessible to the approximately 34 percent of American families that do not have cable. "The industry is always saying their creepy kids' series teach social skills, but on commercial television there's so little to teach us anything. The audience for this program is so young it's always a shame to think of preschoolers being bombarded with commercials." Cable TV and the Cartoon Network "deserve a tremendous pat on the back."
Molly (Selena Nelson), the closest thing to a series host, tells viewers in the first episode, "This is where our show takes place: my general store in Cedar Falls, a quiet little town where some interesting folks happen to live and work."
Other principals include a spaniel-like Muppet named Chelli and Bag, whose name conveys his appearance and who makes meaningful noises through a slit-like mouth. Muppets Argyle (a sock with an Irish brogue) and Lyle (a sweat sock from Brooklyn) offer running dialogue.
THROUGH cartoons and such live-action figures, the series aims to restore the delight that pre-TV generations of kids once took in simple things found around the house. Viewers are urged to join on-screen players in discovering creative ways to use items like odd socks, paper-towel tubes, and spoons.
"All of the situations we created with animation, our Muppet characters, and our kids on-screen really have to do with real-life experiences - things like sharing a crayon," says the show's creator and executive producer, Nina Elias Bamberger. "This may be the first major series to have kids stop and think how they feel about something, to talk about their emotions."
Scarcely a second goes by, in fact, before we are zeroing in on conflict resolution and some other interpersonal issues to be solved. One of the cartoon shorties, for instance, is the recurring "Troubles the Cat," based on Latino characters. The kids make a mess that no one wants to clean up, but they end up realizing they should all pitch in.
One of the prime movers in the solution is the title character, who urges kids at home to look through their "troublescopes" - the paper-towel cores - to see how characters on-screen are feeling: glad, sad, mad, whatever.
Ms. Bamberger says that in seeking varied animation styles in the cartoons, "We worked with co-producers from all over the world - from England, Spain, Australia, Germany, and the Americas. Some segments have strong female characters, some strong male. One of our animations has a chicken family that only speaks chicken."
These segments are done "with a little more grace and beauty than what you would normally see on the air or on cable," says Charren. "They're imaginative and terrific."
It was a challenge, says Bamberger, "to figure out how we would integrate participation in an animated series. It was also hard to create new Muppets that the kids would relate to and that would embody the show. Chelli has real socks for ears and real buttons for belly button and eyes, and real shoelaces for hair."
The result, in the eyes of people like Charren, is a success story in the world of making good kids' TV. "That's very hard to achieve," she says, "even for CTW. But they've done it right."