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Reading promoted via ‘Storyline’

This article was corrected on October 21, 1992. A headline in yesterday’s Daily Variety incorrectly stated the name of pubcaster KCET’s new local kids series “Storytime,” which airs at 7 p.m. Sundays.

The creators of “The Wonder Years” once quipped that they wanted to write an episode about Kevin Arnold going to Disneyland and getting separated from his narrator.

Well, it may not be the theme park, but narrator Daniel Stern was nowhere in sight when Fred Savage, the actor who portrays Kevin, turned up alone Oct. 11 on the premiere of the new weekly KCET fantasyland experimental local series, “Storytime.”

Savage, who read “Willie the Wimp” by Anthony Browne and “The Mitten” by Jan Brett, joins John Ritter, Pam Dawber, Paul Rodriguez, Cloris Leachman, Steve Guttenberg, Mayim Bialik and others who have appeared on the storytelling program.

Aside from attracting actors to a local series that pays them union scale, “Storytime”–consisting of 20 half-hours that were shot over the summer–is unique in a few other aspects.

The entire $ 1 million in funding came from a single source, contributors Helen and Peter Bing. Only on rare occasions has a show made it to air with a single sponsor, says Stephen Kulczycki, KCET’s senior VP and station manager.

One of the most recent efforts to fall into that category was the “Astronomy” series, which was funded by a single grant from the William M. Keck Foundation.

Also, the stories are aimed at a wide array of viewers, including African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans.

The goal of the series, which went into development 18 months ago, is to “create an early passion for books that will help transform a video-dependent child into a lifelong reader,” Kulczycki said.

“We want to once again make reading a cool thing for kids to do. We are not trying to teach a child how to read, but to make that child want to read.”

Citing the “amazing work being done today in children’s literature,” the KCET exec said the station is primarily targeting kids in the 4-6 age range.

But some stories, like “The Little Red Hen,””Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and “Earl’s Too Cool for Me,” can work with youngsters as young as 2 and as old as 10, he noted.

KCET conducted some focus-group studies and found it wanted to depart from the conventional wisdom of relying on pictures to make the fare more palatable.

Aiming for accessibility

“We wanted to create a small sense of theater,” Kulczycki said, “so that it becomes more accessible to the audience. The kids get to watch the process. We even left in people stumbling over their own words because that is what happens when adults read to them.”

To accomplish that feat, exec producer Patricia Kunkel and her staff set out to attract some well-known personalities to read.

“All of them are involved in this because they believe reading to kids is in fact one of the most important things they can do to help kids,” Kulczycki said. “Some of the (actors) involved in this know how important it is from personal experience, with adults having read to them in their own development.”

The future of the show depends on two key factors: KCET’s ability to raise more funds to proceed beyond the initial 20 episodes and PBS’ picking up the series for the network.

A decision is still a few months away, but Kulczycki said PBS will have to look at whether “Storytime” fits into its overall sked, what it can afford with its limited budget and the needs of the individual pubcasting stations.

Although projects of this sort can be expensive, he noted that KCET “tried to make it for “considerably less” than the norm. Still, Kulczycki emphasized that “reading, supplemented by illustrations from the books, music and sound effects, creates an experience on television that is enticing.”

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