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‘Magic Bus’ series hits the road at PBS

It’s not exactly the Who’s “Magic Bus,” but Scholastic Inc.’s upcoming animated series for PBS, “The Magic School Bus,” is poised to bring all manner of visual delights and scientific insights to children ages 5 to 10.

The series, slated to premiere in September, is based on the popular series of children’s books (with more than 7 million copies sold) by writer Joanna Cole and illustrator Bruce Degen. Lily Tomlin will provide the voice of Ms. Frizzle, a colorful teacher who takes her class on memorably wacky field trips in the bus in question. Treks through the solar system and a student’s internal organs (a la “Fantastic Voyage”) are among the fantastic adventures the series will present to teach children basic concepts in science.

“We felt that PBS would be the best home for the series because of its nature ,” explains Deborah Forte, executive VP of production for Scholastic.

Brave combo

“It’s a unique combination of information and entertainment, and PBS will provide the best environment for the series. They’ve been wonderful to work with — they appreciate the value of the show and the production value of the show. We’re giving them as good or better quality as network animation.”

Toronto-based Nelvana Ltd., creators of children’s network series such as “Babar,””Tin Tin” and “Beetlejuice,” will be providing the animation for the program. Former Jim Henson collaborator Jocelyn Stevenson, co-creator of the “Fraggle Rock” series, has been hired as head writer. Scholastic is spending $ 20 million on the series — they’ve received a two-year, 26-episode commitment from PBS — with money coming from, among others, the National Science Foundation, the Dept. of Energy and McDonald’s Corp.

Scholastic has dabbled in animation before, with the network cartoon series “The Littles” and the “Herself, the Elf and the Getalong Gang” specials, but this is its first entirely animated series for PBS.

“This epitomized the tradition of Scholastic,” Forte said. “Combining first-rate information and first-rate entertainment has not been in vogue in the TV business until recently. People are beginning to notice and appreciate the value of good children’s television. We hope this will be a model of what a quality children’s series can be.”

Forte said an educational science series is important because “we are disappointed that children lose interest in science when they approach the end of the elementary grades. At a young age, children are curious about everything, they love to collect and investigate. We hope this show will help them maintain their natural enthusiasm for that. TV is a tremendously powerful tool in helping that.

Market high

“The recent success of ‘Carmen Sandiego,’ ‘Ghost Writer’ and, to a certain extent, ‘Barney’ is good for ‘The Magic School Bus,’ ” Forte noted. “It shows that there is a market for such properties.”

In conjunction with the series, an interactive “Magic School Bus” exhibit will travel around the country. A merchandising program, including toys, will also be initiated, according to Forte.

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