'Bob' wants to build a US audience
A hit kids' TV show from Britain features a big-hearted worker with a 'Yes we can!' attitude
Next Tuesday, a construction worker from Britain with a chart-topping theme song makes his US television debut.
Though he sounds like a guy who missed the Village People auditions, "Bob the Builder" is a puppet whose problem-solving ways and talking machines are a hit with preschoolers worldwide.
The show, airing on the kids channel Nickelodeon, joins a growing number of children's programs (with tie-in merchandise) imported from Britain by US networks. What started with "Shining Time Station" -a vehicle for "Thomas the Tank Engine" -a decade ago, has expanded to include "Noddy," "Teletubbies," and now "Bob."
"The last decade has seen this gradual exchange of shows going on," says Rick Siggelkow, vice president of the children's division at BBC Worldwide in New York.
The US is the latest to get "Bob the Builder," which is already airing in 107 other countries. Since the show's premiere in April 1999, it has become one of the top-rated programs for the under-5-crowd in Britain, where children named Robert now insist on being called Bob.
Even those taller than coffee tables are smitten by the friendly builder -or at least by his theme song, which features Bob's catchy motto "Can we fix it? Yes we Can!" A funkier version was released as a single in England last month and quickly took over the charts for several weeks, beating out American rapper Eminem.
"I never thought I'd have anything to do with a No 1. record, I don't think any of us did. It was the biggest-selling single of 2000 in this country," says Jackie Cockle, the producer who's in charge of Bob's unique stop-frame animation for HIT Entertainment in Britain.
What makes the sometimes absent-minded Bob so appealing, say children's programmers, is his big heart. "Bob is all about working together," says Brown Johnson, who heads Nick Jr., Nickelodeon's preschool programming block. "The central idea [is] that you can tackle any problem no matter how big or small as long as your friends are helping you."
Along with story lines that deal with kid themes, like being afraid of the dark, Bob and his friends - including Dizzy the cement mixer and Lofty the crane -are also environmentally aware. In one episode, Bob makes the machines stop in the middle of the road because some hedgehogs are crossing it. Realizing that's dangerous, he builds a hedgehog subway under the road so they can cross safely.
"When we were developing the machines, I thought of them as a gang of kids who work with Bob, and they were very much a team," says Ms. Cockle, who runs HOT Animation, which is owned by HIT.
Her own team wanted the machines to be flexible, so they could be more expressive, and as a result the puppets are some of the most expensive in the business. But the outcome is charming -Dizzy, for example, can clap her tires together like a real child when she's excited.
Bob and his sidekicks were thought up by a British dad, Keith Chapman, in the 1980s. A former employee of Jim Henson's studios, Mr. Chapman got the idea from watching a team of builders working near his home in London and tried it out on his kids at bedtime before pitching it to HIT in the mid-'90s.
Nickelodeon's Ms. Johnson first learned of "Bob" while visiting friends in England. "Their 2-year-old was completely fixated on Bob," she says. "He wanted to watch Bob all the time.... I used to watch with him and saw how much he liked the song and he was always trying to do projects with people just like Bob."
Children get a comfortable feeling when they watch the show because they know Bob will take care of everything, says Theresa Plummer-Andrews, who handles production of "Bob" for the BBC in Britain. "Whatever the problem is, Bob will sort it, and all the vehicles will help, and [his partner] Wendy will help. But he's the star," she says.
The success of British fare for kids, including "Shining Time Station," "Teletubbies," and the Harry Potter book series, has made US networks more open to the idea of imports, says Mr. Siggelkow, co-creator of "Shining Time Station" and creator of "Noddy." But he observes that the US still exports more than it imports, and that "just because something's worked in Britain or Europe, doesn't necessarily mean it's going to work here."
Americans may recognize "Bob's" stop-frame animation -which is more common in Britain - as the same technique used in US Christmas specials like "Rudolph," though "Bob" is more polished.
"I wanted the characters to be very much of now, and to be very accessible and very appealing," says Cockle, who came up with a setting that could be anywhere in the world.
Some programs are re-voiced when they cross the Atlantic, as is the case with "Bob" -though the theme song is the version sung by British actor Neil Morrissey, the voice of Bob in Britain. Says Johnson, "The US cast is a little bit more diverse and has another girl, which I always think is a good thing."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society