Preschool series to teach "life skills"
CPB provides initial piece of Puzzle Factory funding for '93 airing

Originally published in Current, Nov. 18, 1991

By John Wilner

CPB's Television Program Fund will announce today one of its largest program grants--up to $4.5 million for a new preschool series tentatively entitled The Puzzle Factory to be produced by Lancit Media Productions of New York and KCET, Los Angeles. [The series title was later changed to Puzzleworks and then to Puzzle Place.]

The series will be the first new daily program for preschoolers on public TV since Sesame Street revolutionized children's television 23 years ago, and is expected to reach the air in late 1993.

The grant is contingent upon Lancit and KCET obtaining an additional $6.5 million in underwriting grants from corporations, foundations and individual contributors. Gary Stein, executive v.p. at Lancit, said he didn't expect the producers would have any trouble raising the funds.

"When you consider the kind of high-profile series this is going to be, and combine that with the track records of the people involved in putting it together, we feel optimistic that we'll be successful," Stein said.

Broadcast Properties, a capital development consulting firm on retainer to KCET, will take the lead in finding corporate sponsorship for the remainder of the first season budget.

Blazing new trails

The Puzzle Factory will incorporate many of the techniques and themes that made Sesame Street seem radical years ago but which are now considered standard elements of children's television. These include a tightly edited blend of live action, short documentaries, animation, music and celebrity appearances, and a strong emphasis on multicultural education.

But the show will also depart from previous formats. "We looked at the history of children's programming over the years," said series Executive Producer Cecily Truett, "and we felt that some things were missing."

Chief among these, said Truett and Executive in Charge Larry Lancit, was a continuous, dramatic storyline. Rather than jumping between disconnected set pieces, the show will incorporate related segments into a narrative "dramedy" set in a make-believe puzzle factory.

And unlike Sesame Street, which was designed to develop math and reading skills in preschoolers (ages two to five), The Puzzle Factory is intended to teach children "life skills"--understanding other people, evaluating choices, and solving basic problems.

"We will not teach them how to read or how to add," said Truett. "We will teach them how to love and respect people and grow into full human beings. This is a people show, and these are 'human being' lessons."

Politically correct puppets

Each of the 65 half-hour episodes will feature an ensemble cast of six anthropomorphic puppets assembling a puzzle in a make-believe workshop. The puzzles serve as a metaphor for the value of each person's role in and contribution to society.

"The essence of this program is that people are individuals," said Truett. "Each of us is extremely unique, and has many wonderful things to share about our families and our heritage, and the ways and the customs that we grew up with and can bring to other people."

The puppet characters--intended to represent the diversity of American culture--include Jamal "Jammin" Waters, an introspective African-American idealist; Julie Woo, an artsy, self-assured Asian-American; and Victor Melendes, an indecisive Hispanic who argues with himself and brings two lunches because he can't decide what he wants eat.

Truett said the series producers specifically avoided casting imaginary creatures in the puppet roles. "We felt that it was very important to create a cast of characters that had the likenesses, mannerisms, feelings and all of the things that are reflective of the diverse kinds of people that live in the United States."

Another innovation is that the puppets will have "multidimensional" personalities--that is, they will vary in mood and temperament. "The characters that we created are like real people," says Truett. "Sometimes they're happy, sometimes they're not; some of them have attitudes, and some of them don't."

The puppets will also break the so-called "fourth wall" by directly addressing viewers on a regular basis, in order to draw their attention to particular themes of the show.

Mutant ninja consultant

The series will be shot at KCET's studios on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, on soundstages that were originally used in to shoot such classics as the Bowery Boys series in the 1930s, Invasion of the Body Snatchers in the 1950s and Carl Sagan's Cosmos in the 1980s.

Phylis Geller, senior v.p. for national production at KCET said that posters, activity cards, a newsletter and other materials will be developed for use by parents and daycare providers in order to "enhance the impact of the series and carry its goals beyond the television program." Teachers' off-air recording for educational purposes will be permitted.

Lancit and Truett have collaborated on PBS's Reading Rainbow, an Emmy-winning series that encourages school-age children to read during the summer, and The Drug Avengers, an animated series produced for the Department of Education and shown in schools nationwide.

Kevin Clash, the series' senior creative consultant and puppeteer, worked on numerous projects with Jim Henson, and recently won an Emmy for his work on Sesame Street. He also played the character "Splinter" in the two wildly popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies, and currently plays one of the characters on the ABC show Dinosaurs.

The CPB Program Fund received 30 proposals, and its review panel chose The Puzzle Factory among four finalists.


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