Curious George: Endangered Species?

Analysis: With kids watching their favorite shows ad infinitum across multiple screens, do tot networks need to ramp up production?

Count Frank Welker among the number of people who think the world needs more “Curious George.”

Welker is a renowned voice actor who helped create such notable tones as the voice of Fred in the long-running adventures of “Scooby-Doo”; Slimer in a 1980s cartoon reworking of the popular “Ghostbusters” movie; and – would you believe it? – several Smurfs. But he’d like to speak up more on behalf of the inquisitive monkey, whose voice he has provided for the PBS pre-school series since it debuted in 2006.

“I think we all would like to see more production,” said Welker. “It is a show we’re proud of, and the ratings have always been stellar.”

When “Curious George” launched on PBS, it did so with a massive 30-episode order, followed by 20 episodes in its second season. The current cycle, however, consists of only six, as it did last year. It’s not that “George” isn’t a popular little fellow. He is, according to Lesli Rotenberg, general manager of children’s programming for PBS, and his show is the most viewed program on PBS’ kids schedule. But the model upon which PBS works calls for a sizable first-season order – approximately 40 episodes – followed by smaller numbers for subsequent cycles.

From A Flood To A Trickle

If you were a young child hoping to feast on a new “George” adventure during the 2013-2014 TV season, you’d likely starve: After showing an hour-long special depicting the clever monkey celebrating a Halloween “Boo Fest” last autumn, the network recently served up three new half-hours. Three more new episodes will debut later in spring.

Do kids really care? Evidence suggests they are happy to watch the same episode again and again until they master its story line, said Sherri Hope Culver, an assistant professor at Temple University who is also director of the Center for Media and Information Literacy. Indeed, PBS Kids operates on the premise that its audience “ages out” of its shows sometime between the time its members turn two and the time they turn eight, said Linda Simensky, vice president of children’s programming at PBS. If a series has a base of 100 shows, she suggested, supplementing it with 10 to 13 episodes per season keeps things interesting while making economic sense.

Yet in these days of kids being able to watch past seasons on Netflix, Amazon and iTunes, or just call up snippets of recent episodes on PBS’ own website, isn’t there a risk of viewer burn-out happening much more quickly – even if the viewer is only a small fry instead of a full-fledged couch potato?

When it comes to kids’ series, “the expectation is that the programming will be ubiquitous,” said Margaret Loesch, the veteran childrens’ programmer who is president and CEO of The Hub Network, the kids’ network owned jointly by Discovery Communications and Hasbro. The Hub announced Tuesday that it intends to jettison many of the old sitcoms it runs in primetime in favor of original programs. “It’s a huge challenge for all of us in the business,” she added.

At PBS, executives make certain to program the schedule to stoke interest. New episodes reappear at different points during the year, and the network will sometimes group a selection of older episodes in a series across a week. In total, PBS Kids makes between 150 and 175 new episodes available each year, said Rotenberg.

The digital side gets attention, too: On the PBSKids site and app, the network makes four videos available per series, then refreshes one of them each week. Even so, the network has past seasons from 11 different series available on Netflix; 14 on Amazon; and 15 on iTunes. PBS Kids series can also be found via Google Play, Hulu. Vudu, LeapFrog and MobiTV and via Roku – not to mention a few dozen apps from individual programs. The PBS Kids site averaged over 60 million streams per month in 2013, while the various mobile apps combined for more than 175 million streams per month in the same year, PBS said.

“As we have more content on more platforms, we are really getting more kids spending more time with us and that really helps us to determine what our strategy should be about ‘feeding’ the content,” said Rotenberg. “We are learning along the way.”

A Unique Model

Why pick on PBS? After all, you don’t see Viacom’s Nickelodeon rolling out 40 episodes for a first season (Nick Jr. has ordered four new series for the coming programming season consisting of 20 episodes each). And producers think the PBS method can be quite advantageous. PBS generally gives producers international and merchandising rights, said Kevin Morrison, chief operating officer of the Fred Rogers Company, which has two series – “Daniel Tiger” and “Peg + Cat” – on PBS at present. That’s something Disney, Time Warner and Viacom would never allow, he said.

And yet, the big-order-up-front strategy has its challenges. Older episodes can start to look dated (Why doesn’t The Man with the Yellow Hat from “Curious George” ever make use of a smartphone, or any sort of mobile device? When he visits the beach in an episode titled “Metal Detective,” why does The Man listen to a recorded book on a bulky portable CD player, when he could likely have bought it in digital fashion from iTunes or Amazon?).

And sometimes, the small production schedule sparks other issues. “Curious George” producers have in recent seasons had to use new people to do the voices for recurring characters who aren’t in the central cast (unfamiliar tones have recently been heard coming from some of the ancillary characters of “Curious George”: one of the firemen in Rescue Squad 86 and a scientist named Professor Pizza).

Repeated viewing is something educators want when kids watch educational programming, said Culver. “It gives them a sense of mastery over the content and they enjoy being able to anticipate the story line and know what’s going to happen,” she said. Additional viewing also drives home the lesson in every episode of an educational program, said Simensky. “They have to watch it a few times to really reinforce it, and so that allows us to repeat something a reasonable number of times before they’ve gotten as much out of it as they are going to get,” she said. “What our assumption is, they can take that information and go to another platform – play a game, an app, listen to music – do something that reinforces what they have already learned.”

Personal Viewing

No reporter worth his or her salt likes to use personal experience as proxy for trends in the general population. So I won’t pretend the viewing habits of my three-year-old daughter, Molly, represent those of millions of other kids. Molly has long been a fan of ”Curious George”: Much to my surprise, “George” was her third word, after learning how to call out for her mother and father. My family continues to be regular viewers of the program, though not avid ones, which we were when she first discovered it. What brings us back to “Curious George” these days is a) something else she wanted to watch isn’t available live, via streaming or stored on the DVR or b) a new episode is about to debut.

And that’s the theory, or at least mine: Just as in prime-time television, new episodes of a favorite program drive viewership of it.

Take the case of “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” a Fred Rogers production that PBS recently greenlit for a second season. The show, an animated look at the next generation of creatures from The Land of Make-Believe from “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” debuted in September of 2012. Only recently has PBS broadcast the last of the 40 episodes in its first-season order, wrapping them up with a week of originals. One has to imagine a week of new shows drove chatter about the series among its fans and, likely, sparked its audience to watch more intently.

“The strategy they take is usually having a window of promotion – spotlighting one of their programs at a time,” explained Paul Siefken, vice president of broadcast and digital media at Fred Rogers, a former director of children’s programming at PBS. “It allows for a certain control across the country, which is difficult when you are dealing with 300 independent public television stations.”

Monkey Love

There’s still a lot of love for “George” at PBS. “I would order 20 to 25 episodes a year if they would let me,” said Simensky. Show producer Universal Animation Studios “has made a decision based on economics,” she said, alluding to some stalls she has seen in sales of kids’ shows to international markets and in DVDs. “I think they are a fairly thoughtful, conservative company and they feel like they have so many episodes that they don’t want to go crazy,” she said. A spokesman for the Universal unit said executives were not available to comment on the production schedule for “Curious George.”

Frank Welker hopes to get word about future “George” work. When the series is in full production, he said, he typically needs to be in the studio once a week for a two-to-four-hour recording session to complete one or two episodes. After the art is done and a season is wrapped, he may be called upon for “pickups,” or quick extra work required by line changes or legal and technical issues.

“All that being said, it is critical for most of us in the voice acting business to have many shows,” he said, “for one show does not a living make.” The same probably holds true for a young child’s media diet.

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