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Critic's Notebook

PBS can market its kids shows without selling out

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / November 15, 2009

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I’m ready for my Ruff Ruffman T-shirt. And my Ruff Ruffman backpack. And maybe a Ruff Ruffman flea collar, just for show. I want Ruff consumer-product overload.

Ruff, for the uninitiated, is the neurotic, self-aggrandizing, animated canine star of “Fetch! With Ruff Ruffman,’’ a WGBH-produced public television show aimed at teaching science to 6-to-10-year-olds. It’s one of the most inventive and hilarious shows on children’s TV, a series that perfects the trick of being educational without feeling educational.

But Ruff isn’t SpongeBob.

Meaning, he isn’t ubiquitous.

Meaning, he isn’t the cultural icon that he could be.

Meaning, there are kids who might age in and out of the “Fetch!’’ sweet spot without ever learning about him, or spiders, or the mechanics of ballet, or green construction, or one of the many other topics featured in recent episodes.

That’s the dilemma PBS faces when its audience ages from preschool to real school, when kids whose parents once controlled the remotes start getting influenced by their peers. As soon as kids get to school and see those SpongeBob T-shirts, public television loses a good chunk of its cachet.

Lesli Rotenberg knows this. As PBS’s senior vice president for children’s media, she has presided over focus groups and forums to figure out why kids peel away from the network - and to come up with countermeasures. Kids like to play games online, so the network has beefed up its websites. School-age kids don’t like shows they associate with “babies,’’ so PBS created an after-school block filled with sharper-edged fare, from the snarky vocabulary cartoon “Word Girl’’ to an updated version of “Electric Company,’’ which uses beatboxing to teach phonics.

And then there’s “Fetch!,’’ which airs at 5:30 weekdays on Channel 2, and is funded in part by the National Science Foundation. It’s an inventive takeoff on reality TV, in which the aforementioned Ruff - voiced by improv actor Jim Conroy - runs a live-action game show for kids out of his owner’s garage. From his control booth in the doghouse next door, Ruff sends the kids on challenges, awards them points and prizes, and cavorts with his animated relatives, from his Grandma Ruffman to his Swedish rock-star cousin, Rüf Rüfman. He frets a lot and talks a lot about food.

He’s irresistible from his absurdly small feet to his suspended-in-air eyebrows, and in many ways, his show is already a success. “Fetch!,’’ which wrapped filming its fifth season in August, reaches an average of 2.5 million people each week. In a study last May by Marketing Evaluations, Inc., Ruff had the highest popularity rating of any PBS character, and outscored the Jonas Brothers and “High School Musical’’ among 6-to-8-year-olds.

Still, only 800,000 kids in the targeted age range watch the show each week, and Ruff is not quite a household name - in part because it’s hard to find him anywhere but on TV. And well-meaning parents want to change that. Kate Taylor, the show’s creator and executive producer, says she gets calls and letters asking where to buy “Fetch!’’ T-shirts. (She says they’re only available on the WGBH website.)

Parents are accustomed to seeing PBS’s preschool characters in store aisles all over; “Sesame Street’’ characters are licensed so broadly that it’s hard to wind through a supermarket aisle without seeing Elmo’s red head. And Rotenberg has heard requests for more PBS licensing. Last summer, she and other PBS children’s TV executives traveled around the country to meet with parenting bloggers, a few of whom pointedly asked why the network doesn’t put its characters and logos in more places.

Rotenberg answered cautiously: “I just turned that around and said, ‘Would you like that?’ ’’ she recalls. “As a parent it’s unnerving to have everything with somebody’s face all over it.’’

Brigid Sullivan, WGBH’s vice president for children’s programming, allows that licensed products can publicize a brand and bring in much-needed money. And she says producers have considered putting Ruff’s image on software and board games, creating spinoff books and plush animals - though merchandisers have been slow to take on a character who isn’t already well-known. (The animated stars of “Curious George’’ and “Arthur,’’ two hit children’s shows produced by WGBH, were the subjects of popular books before they made it onto the airwaves, and their licenses are controlled by other entities.)

But there’s a larger stumbling block to an all-out Ruff product blitz, Sullivan says: the fear that aggressive merchandising would undercut public television’s identity. Too many T-shirts and bobblehead dolls, she says, could foul with the educational purpose of Ruff.

“We are not really trying to sell stuff, and we’re really not trying to make every kid feel like they’re not a complete child if they don’t have a Ruff backpack,’’ Sullivan says. “We’re never going to design characters thinking. ‘Oh, this character has got to be on lunchboxes.’ It’s not our business. I’d hate to think of the mess we’d make if we started doing that.’’

That’s a noble idea, backed by well-meaning advocacy groups that rail against the avalanche of products aimed at kids. But many parents understand that merchandising is an inexorable part of our culture, far easier to harness than to avoid. Nickelodeon & Viacom Consumer Products - buoyed by SpongeBob and Dora the Explorer - manages the world’s third-largest licensing business, building vast sums of money on the giant feedback loop of popularity. SpongeBob appears on every sort of product imaginable, so kids know who he is, so they want to watch the show, so they ask for those SpongeBob boxer shorts at Target.

PBS characters have the same potential for coolness; Rotenberg’s research has shown that school-age kids like educational shows that let them show off newfound knowledge. And while parents can, indeed, get product overload, they’re also accustomed to purchasing with social consciousness in mind - organic cleaners, reusable garbage bags, bottled water that helps fund water treatment plants. If I want to contribute to public TV, I prefer the store shelf to the fund drive; who needs noblesse oblige when you can get a “Word Girl’’ temporary tattoo?

Besides, media literacy ought to be part of children’s education, too. A lack of commercials is one of PBS’s great appeals, but watching ads can be a useful exercise, particularly for older kids. They need to know the difference between a program and an ad, to recognize when someone is trying to sell them something. Likewise, they need to understand that it’s possible to say “Yes’’ to a Ruff Ruffman T-shirt, and that it’s also possible to say “No.’’

Because, of course, no kid needs a Ruff Ruffman shirt. But put Ruff on enough pencils and hoodies and boxes of macaroni and maybe he’ll become a big enough deal to helm his own science-themed board game. Six- and 7- and 10-year-olds want to share their favorite things with their friends. They’re brand ambassadors, willing to work for free. And what cartoon character could be worthier of their affection than a dog with a scientific bent, a deep-seated hatred for cats, and a platform on extremely-educational TV?

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to www.viewerdiscretion.net

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