A dog named Blue and her best friend Steve are at theforefront of a new wave of programming for the preschool set.
Nearing the end of its second season, Nickelodeon'sbreak-out hit Blue's Clues is pulling in a larger audience than SesameStreet most months and it's doing it with a program that may be as innovative asthe 30-year-old show was when it debuted.
Two simple premises lie at the heart of the show'ssuccess:Preschoolers like repetition and they have enough of an attention span to follow anengaging storyline throughout an entire show.
Blue's Clues explores weekly themes through acarefully layered storyline that runs the length of the half-hour show.
The live-action host lives in a storybook animatedcompletely on Mac computers and doesn't try to be a father figure -- or even anuncle. Instead, he engages viewers by relying on them for help as he solves problems like"What is Blue afraid of?" by playing a game of "Blue's Clues."The result is a level of interactivity achieved by few other shows.
Parents like Lisa Burrows and Andre Jackson don't haveto be in the room to know their almost-five-year-old son Alexander is watching the newestpreschool sensation. If he's giving advice to the TV set or shouting out answers,then the channel must be tuned to Blue's Clues.
"When it comes on he talks to the TV loudly, veryloudly. He watches it twice a day. He yells out the clues or whatever they're talkingabout," said Burrows, an air-traffic controller in St. Louis.
And like most viewers, Alexander watches the same episodeseveral times a week. Unlike any other children's show, Blue's Clues isaired the same way preschoolers "read" a book -- over and over again. The sameepisode of Blue's Clues airs five days in a row. Two different episodes runeach day at 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., respectively.
Dan Anderson, a child psychologist at the University ofMassachusetts at Amherst whose research helped form the basis for the show, counted thenumber of times his then-3-and a half-year-old daughter asked to watch the pilot.
"She watched it 17 times before she stopped asking tosee it again. She became increasingly interactive with the pilot; her understanding of itseemed to grow in depth," said Anderson, who remains a consultant for the show.
Based on that and an idea that it would take time forchildren to get used to being interactive with the show, Anderson and the show'screators -- Traci Paige Johnson, Angela C. Santomero and Todd Kessler -- suggested runningthe same episode five days a week.
The programming executives at Nickelodeon were up to thechallenge.
"It was a big gamble," admitted Brown Johnson,senior vice president of Nick Jr. "There are a number of myths we set out to bust andone of them is the myth that kids have no attention span."
The gamble paid off.
"Who'd have thunk a show on Nickelodeon wouldsurpass Sesame Street?" asked Herb Scannell, president of Nickelodeon andfather of a Blue's fan. He knew the show was doing well in the ratings, but itwasn't until he visited a new Viacom store last Thanksgiving that he really realizedjust how wildly popular the show had become.
"They showed me the Blue's Clues area. Itwas empty. All the product sold out the first day, and they had a list of 10 pages ofpeople saying 'I want anything Blue's Clues.'"
Nickelodeon has produced other popular shows, but Scannelland Johnson credit Blue's Clues with shining a spotlight on the network'soriginal programming.
"There is a paradigm shift in terms of quality kidstelevision. It's not just PBS anymore," Johnson said. "Nick has 70 percentpenetration in the U.S., yet our numbers are higher cumulative."
"It's really important. Just the ratings aloneput it into context," added Scannell. "I think Blue's Clues has beenthe catalyst for that kind of change. Sesame Street is the standard. It's themeasuring stick for all of us."
But unlike Blue's Clues, created specificallyfor Nick Jr., the next two major projects en route are based on already-popular storybookcharacters: "Maisy," Lucy Cousins' bold-colored mouse; and"Kipper," a pudgy-faced brown-and-white dog from the pen of Mick Inkpen. Alsounlike Blue's Clues, which is just getting into the merchandising game, Maisymerchandise is already on the market.
Blue's Clues also is pulling in visitors to theNick Jr. Web site (http://www.nickjr.com), where the Blue's Clues gameis played 20,000 times a day, according to Nickelodeon.
The Internet also gives fans a chance to show theirappreciation. Parents have set up unofficial Web sites and an Internet newsgroup isdevoted to the show.
The show is heavily researched and tested at every step.Each program is tested at various schools three times before it airs. Along the way asmany as 150 children in the viewing age range play the games, watch the rough cut and viewthe edited version.
Anderson, who worked with the Children's TelevisionWorkshop earlier in his career, sees in Blue's Clues the results of much ofhis research on what kind of television works best for certain age groups.
"A lot of what I learned was from Sesame Street,"he said. "It was, in its own time, a completely breakthrough concept."
The creators of Blue's Clues wanted a programthat is, in its own way, as much of a breakthrough as Sesame Street was. Researchby Anderson and his colleagues dispelled the myth that Sesame Street'sfrenetic pace was damaging the ability of children to pay attention and would adverselyaffect their academic abilities.
But that doesn't mean its fast pacing is right forevery age.
"In my view, it was innovative at the time butwrongheaded. The slower pace is more effective for preschoolers," said Anderson.
Children's television activist Peggy Charen is anunabashed Blue's Clues fan.
"There's nothing on television that looks like Blue'sClues. That's why it grabbed my attention. I think the best news forchildren's television is that Blue's Clues is doing so well," shesaid.
"This isn't tax dollars, it's bottom-linedollars -- so it's very exciting when a program like this comes out of commercialtelevision and works. When something like this fails it sends a terrible message: Insteadof saying, 'We didn't do our PR well enough' or 'There are too manyprograms like this,' ... they say, 'Good programs don't work so we'regoing to go back,'" Charen said.
She cited CBS' changes in its Saturday-morningchildren's block as an example.
"They dumped the programming because the ratingsdidn't work, but didn't take into account that they interrupt the morning withtwo hours of news," Charen said.
"A number of networks have a little bit that'sfor children -- HBO has a little bit and Showtime has a little bit," she continued."There's the Cartoon Network, which is nowhere diverse enough. ... Ifyou're trying to do something that makes a difference, that children will like andtheir parents will like, too, there's PBS, Nickelodeon, Disney, and I thinkthat's it."
At Disney Channel, they prefer the term "littlekids" to "preschool." To Rich Ross, senior vice president of programmingand production, that's a better description at a time when relatively few childrenaren't involved in some kind of organized care outside the home.
"One of the major strategies we took when we launchedthis initiative was any kid who goes to any kind of program already is in school. In theirminds they're going to school," said Ross, adding, "Revitalizing the littlekids' arena is paramount to our success."
To that end, Disney is not only devoting considerableresources to building its block of original programming, it's also using the new"Toon Disney" network to expand the amount of programming time aimedspecifically at little kids.
"We time-shifted. We heard loud and clear, 'Giveme something in the late afternoon,' so if you're a parent of a little kid, theycan watch Disney from 9 [a.m.] to 2 [p.m. EST] or Toon Disney from 4 [p.m.] to 7 [p.m.EST]," Ross said.
Ross, a former Nickelodeon executive, gives credit wherecredit is due with regard to Blue's Clues: "I would say what it did wasgive an opportunity to prove that kids, especially little kids, will be as active as theycan be. Little kids are incredibly concerned about mastery, whether it's drinkingfrom a bottle or tying a shoe. If a television show said, 'Wow, by the end of a weekyou can do something,' that's tremendously empowering for little kids."
Like the programmers at Nick Jr., Ross sees room forprograms that engage the viewer for longer periods of time.
Bear in the Big Blue House from Jim Henson Productionsis an example. Now in its second season, Bear offers one storyline that runs for 24minutes.
Disney's PB& J Otter offers two shortersegments, each featuring the "Noodle Dance," where the title characters usetheir noodles to solve a problem.
The longer programs are interspersed with an interstitialseries of five-minute shorts.
So far, Blue's Clues has achieved its successwithout gimmicks like celebrity appearances. But it will celebrate its success with aprimetime birthday party scheduled for June 14 to cap off the cable industry's"Tune Into Kids and Family Week II." Structured like the other shows, thebirthday episode will feature a song from Gloria Estefan and best wishes from suchcelebrities as Rosie O'Donnell.