Now it’s action in Jackson
Between the Lions could keep going with Mississippi network’s help
Originally published in Current, Feb. 23, 2004
By Karen Everhart
Creators of Between the Lions, a PBS children's series with a solid educational curriculum but insufficient funds to continue production, have forged a new partnership with Mississippi Public Broadcasting that could keep the series alive for two more seasons.
The literacy series, one of the first PBS Kids shows to launch with Ready to Learn funding, is a curricular standard-bearer, but its high-end production values and limited sales of licensed products made it a pricey project for public TV. Last year, PBS offered to cover 22 percent of the cost of a fifth season, but producers struggled to raise the $2.5 million to complete their budget.
WGBH and Sirius Thinking, partners in creating the series and producing 70 episodes, also secured research grants to extend educational uses of the Between the Lions for Native American and Spanish-speaking children (accompanying story).
The alliance with Mississippi's state-owned public broadcasting network is easing the program's economic squeeze and reviving hopes for new seasons. Talks about bringing MPB into the project began casually and became more serious last summer as producers wondered how to keep Between the Lions going.
"This is an opportunity for us to do the same quality of production at a lower price and it's a mentoring opportunity for our station," said Marie Antoon, executive director of the Mississippi network. MPB not only has a mission that emphasizes education and an interest in child literacy but also low nonunion labor costs and extra capacity in its state-of-the-art TV production facilities. Past episodes have been shot at leased studios in New York City.
MPB's interest in supporting the series "brought new energy to the project and new thinking about how we might go through the production," said Beth Kirsch, WGBH project director.
Antoon and aides joined producers from WGBH and Sirius Thinking to sketch out a new production model that would cut per-episode production costs by half. PBS is considering the partners' proposal to produce 20 new episodes in the next two years.
"This is something completely new that brings down the cost of production, provides a unique learning opportunity for the Mississippi station and helps us get to an innovative funding strategy," said Brigid Sullivan, WGBH v.p. for children's, educational and interactive programming.
WGBH declined to disclose financial details of the proposed arrangement, but per-episode costs of the existing episodes topped $570,000. The series was shot on an elaborate set with puppeteers, various other performers, original music and animation. Producers developed its curriculum through extensive consultations with literacy experts.
Mississippi had been research site
The new production model proposes to scale back expensive studio elements of <I>Between the Lions<I>, adapt existing material for new episodes and round out the curriculum by teaching tricky consonant sounds.
The series frames each episode with studio-based segments featuring lion
puppets in a public library, but these are "the most expensive parts
of the show and may not be the most important part educationally," explained
Christopher Cerf, co-creator and producer for Sirius Thinking. "We will
do that less expensively or do less of it."
Mississippi's willingness to put its weight and in-state fundraising muscle behind the series was the deal-maker.
By providing in-kind services of its staff and waiving the overhead costs of shooting in its new production facility, Mississippi ETV would contribute $600,000 to the production. "We will not charge for videographers or producers or animation because it's important to us that this show stays on the air," said Antoon. She also plans to request substantial funding for the project from MPB's best fundraising prospects.
The state network would assign the $600,000 it spends annually on a major
children's production to Between the Lions. MPB sought a new project
after completing a multimedia and training initiative on preparing young children
for school. MPB produced Going to School with its partners in the Five
Star Alliance for Children, a collaboration with five southern public TV networks.
"This program and its mission and what it's trying to do is at the heart of what children's programs should be about," Antoon said. "There's nothing that we could do that would equal it on our own."
MPB has built a good track record with educationally focused projects for kids. It won a national Emmy with Tick Tock Minutes, an interstitial series featuring a puppet character. In 2000, it produced Right From Birth, a nationally distributed TV series and adult training curriculum on fostering reading skills in young children.
MPB's educational staff became closely aligned with Between the Lions through Mississippi Literacy Initiative, a 2001-02 research project designed to help children at high risk of reading failure. The study demonstrated that a classroom curriculum based on Between the Lions and related reading materials improved the early reading skills of disadvantaged children from two Mississippi communities.
Antoon, who took the helm of MPB during the research, realized that expanding the network's relationship with Between the Lions would benefit children and educators in the state while setting her agency on an ambitious course.
The Mississippians' enthusiasm gave a lift to the Between the Lions team. "When we spent time with Marie and her staff, we were really impressed by her vision for the station, what she wanted to accomplish and what she was willing to bring to the table," Kirsch said. "Their excitement and smarts in thinking about this made us very excited to expand our partnership from two organizations to three."
"We've got a long way to go, and this may not happen, but, boy--if it does--the staff here will put their heart and soul into it," Antoon said. "They love this program."
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