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George, a monkey, compares impressions he has taken by mashing raviolis into scratches

Will kids ape him? George uses ravioli to measure the depth of alleged cat scratches on furniture. (Artwork copyright by Universal Studios.)

Monkey transcends kids’ audience trend

Originally published in Current, July 9, 2007
By Katy June-Friesen

At age 66, the star of Curious George is no fading entertainer. After nearly a year on PBS, the still-precocious monkey has become one of the most popular characters on television.

Of 10 shows in the PBS Kids service, George’s time slot is one of only two that gained audience over the past year compared with 2005-06, according to an analysis by TRAC Media Services. When the new season arrives Sept. 3, top-rated Curious George will continue to kick off the 8-10 a.m. block for preschoolers. Clifford, the other program not losing viewers, will follow.

Producers at WGBH in Boston had talked for decades about acquiring rights to make a Curious George series. After Universal got the rights from Houghton Mifflin to make the February 2006 Curious George movie, the studio wanted to pair it with a TV series. “Houghton Mifflin loved how WGBH brought Arthur to television and basically acted as the matchmaker by bringing Universal to us,” says Jacqui Deegan, series producer at WGBH. While the station developed the series, Universal handled the animation and retained the copyright.

Curious George started with a large following, generations deep, of people who grew up reading the books. The creators, German-born Hans and Margret Rey, escaped Paris on bikes as the Nazis approached in 1940. The authors fled with the original manuscript, and within a year they were in New York City, beginning their careers in children’s books. The series of Curious George books has sold more than 25 million copies.

Linda Simensky, senior director of children’s programming at PBS, all but assumed the show would be a smash after WGBH presented its plans in February 2004. “I would have to say it was one of the best pitches I’ve ever seen,” she recalls.

At first, when Executive Producer Carol Greenwald told her that Curious George would teach “engineering for preschoolers,” Simensky raised an eyebrow. But the idea clicked when Greenwald said, “George is curious—he wants to know how things work.”

“I fell in love with it right there at the table,” says Simensky. She was certain PBS should do the show.

“This is one of those shows where my mom’s going to be excited, I’m excited and my son’s going to be excited,” said Simensky at the first meeting. “That’s three generations of excitement. Not many shows can produce that.”

Readers remember the charming but naughty monkey whose adventures land him in a series of pickles. On PBS, George still has pickles, but his behavior seems less risky, and he overcomes the stickiest situations through mathematical problem solving, scientific logic and raw monkey reasoning.

In the segment “From Scratch,” for example, George sets out to prove that Chef Pisghetti’s cat Gnocchi is not the one scratching up booths in the restaurant. He devises various tools—such as a strand of spaghetti—to measure the length of the scratches. When George proves that a serving cart—not the kitty—is making the scratches, Chef Pisghetti is delighted. Relieved of worry, the chef makes cannoli for George, which was what George wanted all along.

Each animated segment (there are two per episode) is paired with a real-world segment during which children create something or solve a problem. Deegan says it was important to show real kids experimenting, in part so that kids can do at least some of the exciting things George does. After the segment “Curious George Flies a Kite,” during which George is accidentally pulled into the sky on a kite string, children learn to build simple kites and fly them—though from the ground.

Producers chose to focus on certain problem-solving skills, says Brigid Sullivan, v.p. of children’s programming at WGBH, both because of George’s character and because they saw an unmet curricular need in children’s programming.

“George’s essence is curiosity, and curiosity is at the heart of the habits of mind for learning science, math and engineering,” Sullivan says. “We saw there was a need at the preschool level to build the fundamentals of science and math and engineering. There’s still a need for more of that, in my humble opinion.”

Integrating grown-up educational goals into the monkeyshines is the show’s triumph, says Simensky. Producers at WGBH worked with education and child development consultants to create a curriculum bible before they started writing scripts.

That George is not human, says Deegan, actually helped convey these concepts. “George is particularly a perfect fit because — as one of our early advisors pointed out — he’s got four hands, basically, so he’s building things, he’s building bridges,” she says. “He can really get kids excited about these early engineering concepts . . . and also bridge that gender gap — it’s still a male-dominated field — to get young kids, boys and girls, psyched about building things.”

It may seem a handicap that George doesn’t talk, but he chitters expressively, and narrator William H. Macy has the job of leading children through the story and George through his problem-solving. “The narrator, in addition to lending that storytelling feel to the show,” says Deegan, “gives us insight into George’s thought process.”

So why is George’s performance so appealing, and why do kids keep watching him? This is the big-deal question as PBS continues to update its children’s programming schedule, and Deegan thinks the answer is fairly simple.

“As long as you have great stories and great characters, kids will want to watch,” she says. “Everyone loves Curious George, so in terms of adapting to television, there are certainly challenges, but we tried to stay as faithful to the charm and elegance and simplicity of the books as we could—both the visual style and the storytelling style.”

Raw monkey magnetism

The book-to-television conversion has clearly served PBS well in the past with shows such as Arthur and Clifford, though Curious George is certainly the oldest of these texts. That an old character has competed well against newer ones may encourage producers and programmers.

Babette Davidson, v.p. of programming at The Programming Service for PTV in Tampa, Fla., is hopeful that, with George, PBS Kids is heading in the right direction: “In a world where there’s so many trends and fads—kids go from Tamagotchis to Pokémon to Bionicles or whatever—this is a character that has transcended.”

Curious George’s bright, bold 2-D figures and endearing narratives — each with beginning, middle and end—appeal to older kids as well as the age 2-5 target audience. Dan Soles, senior v.p. and chief television content officer at WTTW in Chicago, thinks the show works because it can reach across ages.

“It’s a very strong show for preschoolers, but I think school-age children, especially in the 6-8 crowd, also enjoy the program,” he says. “It’s rare that you find a show that reaches both demographics.” The program gets good ratings on WTTW on afternoons as well as mornings. “We air it at 3:30 p.m.,” he says, “and it’s a good transition, going from preschool to school-age. And it does well with both.”

Craig Reed, director of audience research at TRAC Media Services, thinks parents also are attracted to the show. He speaks with personal experience—he has a 5-year-old son. Reed says Curious George—like Clifford and Arthur—is a show adults can enjoy (though Barney, he adds, somehow overcame the lack of adult admiration). “They’re more inclined to turn it on for their child,” says Reed. “I was pleasantly surprised when I watched [Curious George].”

Despite George’s success, PBS daytime programming has seen a steady—if slow—decline in the last five years. Like most other children’s programmers, PBS’s audience is splintering among broadcast and cable channels. Reed attributes PBS’s reduced ratings to “competition—pure and simple.”

Truly, it’s fierce, says Simensky. “There are more options for preschoolers in particular than ever,” she says. “It really just speaks to everyone discovering the kids’ audience as a really viable audience.”

New shows keep viewers interested, says Davidson. “Curious George provides us with something new that gets people talking about us again,” she says. “When people say to me ‘Boy, back in the day when we had these [higher] ratings’—yes, well, now you are up against 17 other children’s programs on all these other stations,” she says. “We really didn’t see a lot of head-to-head competition like we do now with [Dora the Explorer] and [Go, Diego, Go!] until Blue’s Clues came along and Nick Jr. decided it was going to stick its big commercial foot into the 2-to-5-year-old market.” 

The competition today goes far beyond the TV screen, into newer media platforms. The interactive website for Curious George—where kids can play games, watch clips and print figures to color — is one of the most-visited sites on PBS Kids, second only to Arthur’s. Kids spend about an hour per visit.

“The whole idea of just measuring the ratings of the show is starting to feel very old-school,” says Simensky.

Whether in print or on screen, the Curious George “property” — as programmers refer to it — seems to have a lot of stories left in it. “I think that an old feeling in educational television used to be if you made a show too entertaining, it couldn’t be that educational,” says Simensky. “And most of us here feel exactly the opposite.”

Web page posted Sept. 2, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee

EARLIER ARTICLE

Nickelodeon's preschooler audience passed PBS's around 2000, and the pubTV network has mobilized to win kids back.

LATER ARTICLE

Three new literacy shows joined PBS Kids in fall 2007.

LINKS

George's website on PBSKids.org.

Houghton Mifflin's site for the George books.

George's movie.

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