Fox network suddenly inspired to buy up Magic School Bus

Originally published in Current, Dec. 15, 1997

By Karen Everhart Bedford

Ms. Frizzle at the wheelOne of PBS's most popular children's programs, the Magic School Bus, is taking a field trip where no educational children's series has been known to go--the Fox Kids Network.

Scholastic Productions' animated series about a wacky science teacher and her bright, adventuresome students is expected to air in Fox's after-school block, in a lineup of shows that's recently been criticized for its lack of educational value--Power Rangers, Goosebumps and Metallix.

For its new Fox Family Channel on cable, Fox will also pick up Shining Time Station, its distributor announced last week. The 65-episode series has aired in repeats on PBS since 1993. Fox acquired it along with another Britt Allcroft program, Mumfie.

Magic School Bus's move to Fox, which had been rumored for months, comes as PBS prepares to launch several new preschool series next year. Many believe Fox is responding to criticism of its lackluster performance in meeting the FCC's new requirements for educational children's television programs.

"At this point, Fox is not doing well" at providing the requisite three hours of educational kid's programs per week, according to Peggy Charren, the grande dame of children's TV advocates. "You could look on this as a good sign."

"On the one hand, it's a great sign that Fox takes seriously its obligation to provide educational programming and that it respects the quality that's the hallmark of public TV," said David Kleeman, executive director of the American Center for Children's Television. "On the other hand, it's a clarion call that public broadcasting needs sufficient and stable funding so that it's able to protect its signature series."

Adapted from a popular Scholastic book series, Magic School Bus debuted in 1994 as PBS's first fully animated series. With major backing from the National Science Foundation and the celebrity sheen of Lily Tomlin as the voice of Ms. Frizzle, the program aimed to show kids that science is accessible and fun. By many measures, it was a resounding success.

"It is one of the most innovative children's series in how it incorporates creative science content into a wonderful television series," said Milton Chen, education director for KQED in San Francisco and a member of the series' advisory board.

"It combines the best of entertainment and education. The storylines are so creative," said Anne Gorfinkel, program director for WNET, New York. The series draws "twice the audience of most other after-school series" for her station.

The audience for Magic School Bus includes both preschoolers and elementary students, making it one of public TV's highest-rated children's series nationally. According to TRAC Media, Magic School Bus came in behind Arthur in average ratings for the month of October, hitting a 1.5, compared to the aardvark's 1.6.

In a news release, Alice Cahn, PBS director of children's programs, boasted that Magic School Bus is also "the most-used television program in American classrooms." Under the new syndication deal, PBS retains rights for classroom use of the series until fall 1999.

Magic School Bus also won numerous honors and awards, including a daytime Emmy for Tomlin.

Living within public TV's budget

Deborah Forte, executive in charge of the series at Scholastic Productions, declined to discuss financial details of her company's relationship with PBS, but said that PBS and CPB made a "small contribution to the series." PBS and CPB together invested about $1.5 million in Magic School Bus, according to PBS. (Major backing came from the National Science Foundation and Microsoft.)

Magic School Bus production, outreach and promotion cost about $30 million all told, a Scholastic spokesperson confirmed. In comparison, PBS annually spends roughly half that amount--around $14-19 million--on all children's programs, both renewals and new shows. This is about 12 percent of PBS's total spending on its National Program Service.

Magic School Bus debuted as a weekly series in 1994, and began airing as a daily strip on PBS last fall, after Scholastic had delivered 39 episodes.

Forte said PBS's willingness to "take a long-term position on the show" and commit to airing it over several seasons was "uncommon" among broadcasters. "That is the wonderful thing that public TV has done"--sticking with the show for a long enough period for it to find its audience.

"Financials were not part of the reasoning [in taking the show to Fox]," she said. "Scholastic made a commitment to do the finest show to help motivate children in science that we could. We did everything we wanted to do."

After producing 52 episodes of the Magic School Bus for PBS, Scholastic decided to end production. "We had not planned to take the show to commercial broadcasters," Forte said, but top executives from Fox and Saban Entertainment, proprietors of Power Rangers, expressed an interest in buying the show. After talks with PBS, Scholastic opted to sell it to Fox.

"We felt the decision was good for everyone--it maintained the feed of the show, PBS retains educational rights, Scholastic will continue to provide outreach and support, Fox will bring it to a new audience of children," she explained. "It's a win-win for everyone."

"It was a tough decision," acknowledged PBS's Cahn, one that was "very measured" and taken in discussions with Scholastic. Several considerations discouraged PBS from bidding against the deep-pocketed Fox Kids Network. Among them: Scholastic had ceased production of new episodes, and PBS had "had a good run with it." Several new series are in the pipeline for the next few years and public TV can't continue to bring in new shows without retiring old ones. PBS doesn't have the time to air them all, or the budget to support them, she said.

"We do have to make tough decisions based on the fact that we work on public TV's budget," Cahn added.

What about Wishbone?

Most of the new shows in PBS's pipeline aim for a younger audience than Ms. Frizzle's--preschoolers. Charlie Horse Music Pizza, Teletubbies, Noddy and the Kratt brothers' Zooboomafoo join the schedule during 1998. As for shows for school-aged kids, the new Zoom is projected to debut in winter 1999, and PBS is "looking at talking" with producers of Wishbone about "continuing a series that has been a signature for us," said Cahn. Several series are in the "earlier stages of development," and she could not discuss them.

Moving to a commercial network is not a "probability for Wishbone right now," assured Rick Duffield, creator and executive producer. Despite difficulties he's encountered in financing the popular show, Duffield said his relationship with PBS is "very solid right now."

Gorfinkel expressed disappointment over losing Magic School Bus to Fox, noting that public TV will compete against the series on weekday afternoons. "There's a lot of children's product coming--but I don't know if we will have the break-out success" of Magic School Bus.

"It's one of the most loved and popular kids shows we have on the air," commented Jane Sheridan, program manager for KCTS, Seattle. "I feel like I'm losing a good friend. It's a blow."

Sheridan discounted suggestions that public TV's limited investment in Magic School Bus gives it little claim to the series' success. "Air time is a huge resource, are you kidding? There are so many kids' series competing for our air time--to give it that kind of commitment and to strip it." She believes public TV's willingness to take a risk on the show and its success at drawing an audience to it "paved the way" for the series.

"We made that show what it is."

But Kevin Harris, a programming consultant to several public TV stations expressed no worries about replacing Magic School Bus. "I kind of like the fact that after public TV uses these programs for a couple of years, they move on. When they go away, it forces us to be creative and create something else again." He doesn't mind seeing a successful public TV series "go for the dollars it can find on commercial TV."

"Public TV can create something new and better," he said. "There wasn't an Arthur before Magic School Bus."

Money pressures in a new market

Reactions were mixed on whether increased competition for quality children's shows will drive other popular public TV series down the same exit ramp taken by the Magic School Bus.

Cahn discounted that possibility. "I don't mean to sound overly boastful, but if our commercial colleagues don't make a go of this, they will not stay with it." PBS has been in the business of delivering a high-quality children's service for 30 years, and will stay with it regardless. "There is no place other than PBS that producers find the freedom to produce and the audience finds the diversity of programs."

But producers of PBS children's series said financial pressures make it impossible for them to rule out commercial networks as a potential outlet for their shows.

Commercial broadcasters are taking the children's TV mandate more seriously in the past, and are looking at public TV's producers to learn how to make shows that satisfy the new FCC rules, according to Kate Taylor, director of children's programs for WGBH, Boston. "Magic School Bus is one of several series that will be attractive to them."

"We at 'GBH will always prefer to produce for public broadcasting, but we certainly think there are opportunities and a new market opening up," she added.

"We feel a lot of pressure because we feel so strongly about continuing to make new programs," and must come up with the financing to make that possible. "We're lucky not to have commercial pressures from stockholders or sponsors or commercial interests," she added.

"Any program producer is faced with a very difficult challenge today in financing the expense of producing TV shows at a time when broadcast license fees are dropping," commented Wishbone producer Rick Duffield.

"Regardless of what network you have a relationship with, you must always find the best climate in which to produce your show, the best broadcast environment, and the best financial relationship to enable you to produce the kind of show that your audience deserves. It's a difficult challenge."

"We want Wishbone, and I know our fans want Wishbone to keep going--we hear it all the time," Duffield continued. "But how we're able to continue with new programs depends very much on how we're able to find funding. It's natural--it's obvious: you can't buy a new car unless you have money to buy a new car. You can't produce new shows unless you have money to produce new shows."


To Current's home page

Earlier news: The FCC adopted rules in 1996 that encouraged commercial broadcasters to carry kidvid with educational value, like Magic School Bus.

Current Briefing on public TV's children's programs.


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