THE MELBOURNE AGE GREEN GUIDE

June 11th, 1998, p5

Kid's Stuff

This winter the ABC is treating the nation's young to a bumper crop of new programs - as well as a few old favourites. Story by July Adamson

You know you've hit the big time when you get 1000 letters a week. At the ABC, a puppet called Mixy, who hosts the morning children's programs, has achieved that glory.

The fact that a puppet and, for that matter a couple of guys dressed up as bananas, have become major stars in this country shows how seriously children take their television. And the ABC is not underestimating its young audience. This month, a swag of Australian and overseas programs, aiming to entertain infants through to 16-year-olds, has been launched.

"We do debut things throughout the year, but we like at some stage to showcase lots of new material to try and give a greater focus to what we're doing," says Virginia Lumsden, the acting commissioning editor at ABC Children's Television.

"Winterís a good time because in summer, around 5pm to 5.30pm, most Australian kids are out doing what we would choose them to do, which is playing. In winter there's more inclination to be inside earlier and you can reach audiences you don't necessarily have in summer months."

Chances are that by the time you read this, your preschoolers will be watching the first adventures of suburban mutt Hairy Maclary, after having already sung and danced their way through Bumping And A Jumping, a half-hour Bananas in Pyjamas special screened for the first time at Easter.

On 1 June, the ABC debuted its first animated production, Petals, in which five flower sprites gambol through an overgrown garden, ride on cicadas' backs and get into trouble with a cat. Later the same day there was Toys, a British cartoon based on the teddy and doll characters introduced in The Night Before Christmas. Bob Hoskins and Joanna Lumley are the voices of the toys, and the show is followed by a wonderfully creative "claymation" series called the Morph Files.

The title character in Morph - like many young TV watchers is very comfortable with his computer, and the ABC has picked up on this familiarity by creating a children's Web site, which also began operating at the beginning of this month. Lumsden was aware of children - including her own - who began exploring the computer world at the age of two. Watching Sesame Street isn't enough anymore. With a little help they're already checking out the latest Big Bird information on the Net.

The new site combines information about favourite programs with games and activities, and includes the opportunity to transform the ABC logo into anything your imagination desires.

A graphic designer has already turned the familiar station ID into animated fish and elephants. Some ideas from children (done longhand or sent over the Net) will also be converted to animation and put on air.

The TV tastes of older children are included in the site, and their needs catered for in the latest programming.

Race Around The Corner, based on the successful Race Around The World, will begin screening in August. More than 500 12-16-year-olds have applied to take part, and six teams of two will begin workshops soon to prepare for the race.

A new series called Minty, which follows the adventures of two identical 17-year-olds from opposites sides of the world will also be shown later in winter. One is an Australian actress and pop star who can't sing very well, the other is an English schoolgirl who sings brilliantly and suggests they swap lives.

Favourites such as The Secret World Of Alex Mack and The Genie From Down Under will return, but there is also a new animated series for older children, The Wyrd Sisters, which is based on the Discworld fantasy books by Terry Pratchett and began last Friday. The tongue-in-cheek stories contain a wise-cracking Grim Reaper, the reluctant ghost of a murdered king and three witches who are just as likely to drink tea and babysit as cast spells.

There are yet more new cartoons, drama shows and return series on the programming schedule. There are even Australian segments of Sesame Street now being made (for the first time in 28 years), which will screen in 1999.

With 1700 hours of TV to choose and program each year, Lumsden often wishes for a "mirror into the soul" of children. "If you'd asked anyone to predict Bananas In Pyjamas would be so captivating . . . you just can't know," she says. "It's impossible to think you're on a sure thing and it's an independent judgement. I just try to pool what are known quantities, being aware of what children enjoy.

"We have regular testing session, having children speak to us about what they see. They have an amazing response to things. But children will just as easily get up and walk away.

"Yet you can probably push the boundaries more with them in the imagination stakes, and I think they deserve an equal balance and breadth as the adult audience receives - more so, if I was to put my money on it."

The ABC's children's web site address is www.abc.net.au/children.

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