Without asking the question "Do we really need another cable channel for kids?" PBS has an answer: Yes - because nobody does children's shows like PBS.
At least, that's what they hope parents around the country will think in response to the Sept. 6 launch of the PBS KIDS cable channel, a 24-hour service offering the best of existing PBS children's shows, along with some new material.
"Wherever kids and parents go looking for quality noncommercial television," says John Wilson, senior vice president of PBS programming services, "we want PBS KIDS to be there."
The network has launched a major new campaign that targets children with educational shows that draw on computer and internet interactivity. The new cable channel is an integral part of this strategy, Mr. Wilson says. "From the television screen, from the library to the mall, we'll be there."
Creating a PBS KIDS identity that attracts children beyond a single show is key, he adds. It appears to be as much an issue of survival as one of quality.
"We've always been the No. 1 choice for parents," explains Carole Field, senior vice president of PBS communications and brand management.
Children, she says, tune into shows, not networks. "But we've learned from our competitors that having hit shows is not enough. In today's competitive universe, your channel has to be a hit, too."
And so, PBS KIDS rolls out, complete with a new PBS logo to imprint on the minds of millions of children who don't understand the difference between one channel and the next. The goal, according to the network: When kids think imagination, they'll think about their PBS station and PBS KIDS, giving them another reason to watch and use us every day.
For those who don't have access to cable, local PBS stations may elect to take a minimum of six hours of programming in a block to broadcast through their existing local outlet.
In making this offer available, PBS is mindful of the need to break from the Saturday pack of commercial children's offerings to gain any sort of toehold.
PBS KIDS will become the first prime-time block of broadcast shows for children, a direct response to the findings in a June report issued by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. The study recommended that since more children view TV in the evening, more children's programming needed to be available at that prime time.
With "Dragon Tales," the first new PBS KIDS Channel debuting Sept. 6, PBS hopes to launch another of its long-running franchises and build an intensely loyal and multi-generational audience.
Based on the whimsical drawings of a southern California artist, Ron Redecker, the show upholds the PBS mandate with its educational and inspirational themes.
"When I first saw Ron's artwork," says executive producer Jim Coane, "I was stunned by it." Two pictures formed the basis for the series. The first was of a small dragon in the process of running away from home, knapsack over his shoulder, standing at a crossroads sign.
"He could go to Never Never Land. He could go to Oz, wherever," Mr. Coane says. "I thought that was really a beautiful image. It reminded me of the [Robert] Frost poem, 'The Road Not Taken.' "
The second image, of a dragon wrapped around his bed in fear, rounded out the inspiration.
"I thought, this is a terrific idea," Coane says. "Let's create a series about children's fears that offers them choices on the crossroads of life. And the primrose path is just simply not available."
Accordingly, the show chronicles the adventures of two children, six-year-old Emmy and her four-year-old brother Max, and the four dragons they meet in Dragon Land.
Some observers have wondered whether splitting up the PBS franchise might hurt relationships with its old partners, such as Children's Television Workshop (CTW), producers of "Sesame Street." But PBS officials point out that "Dragon Tales" is a co-production of CTW, along with Columbia TriStar Television Group.
As for the target market, "Our strength has traditionally been with preschool programs," says PBS's Wilson. "If you're going to influence an audience, and send them to school ready to learn, we believe we can make the greatest impact with the preschool audience."
First, of course, they have to find it. How to stand out in the noisy cable universe for kids, already staked out by the likes of Nickelodeon and Disney, will be the next challenge PBS faces.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society