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'Little Bill' takes aim at kids, not merchandise

Monday, November 29, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

It's been 27 years since "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" first aired on CBS, and much has changed in children's television.

Nowadays many of the TV shows directed at children have little to do with kids. They're all about merchandising. Witness the fanaticism for "Pokémon." Even its slogan, "Gotta catch 'em all," encourages mass consumption.


"Little Bill"
When: Sunday at 8 on Nickelodeon.
Starring: The voices of Phylicia Rashad, Gregory Hines, Ruby Dee and Madeline Kahn.


Fortunately, with the increase in the number of cable channels, there's been a proportional increase in entertaining, quality television for kids.

"Bear in the Big Blue House" on Disney Channel appeals to 4-year-olds and their parents. Nickelodeon's "Blues Clues" is a kiddie hit. Sunday, regular old Nickelodeon premiered another worthwhile kids' show in prime time: "Little Bill" (8 p.m.).

Based on the books by Bill Cosby, "Little Bill" won't remind viewers of Cosby's "Fat Albert."

"It was much more broadly comic," said Janice Burgess, co-executive producer of "Little Bill." "It had a different style. Little Bill doesn't look like a cartoon character. He looks like a little kid. He's a real kid in a real family with real friends in a real neighborhood. He has real issues to deal with and he's just trying to figure out life."

In Sunday's premiere, Little Bill (voice of Xavier Pritchett) has to figure out what he's good at, his hobby, or as he likes to say, "What's my thing?"

Each episode of "Little Bill" consists of two stories, each about 12-minutes in length. In the second story Sunday, Little Bill and his friends re-enact scenes from their favorite TV show, "Space Explorers." But when one of Little Bill's friends gets a video game based on the show, the children realize playing make-believe is more fun.

Little Bill journeys into his imagination in every episode of the show. A picnic bench becomes a rocket ship. A chess board becomes a green pasture.

"One of the things that became clear to us is that Little Bill is a version of Bill Cosby, somebody who is really inquisitive about the world, somebody who has a funny take on things, somebody who will grow up to be a person who tells stories," Burgess said in a phone interview earlier this month. "You get to be inside his head a little bit."

"Little Bill" began its journey to Nickelodeon as a show for the network's Nick Jr. block of programs for children ages 2 to 5. At this summer's TV critics press tour, Nickelodeon general manager Cyma Zarghami said research showed the series could play in prime time.

"But the decision was made mostly because of the stories it tells," Zarghami said. "It's a very unique kid point-of-view, and just the really extraordinary quality of the production" made it worthy of prime time.

Burgess said "Little Bill" offers an alternative to "The Simpsons" and gives families a wider selection. Though Cosby won't be doing any voice work for the series, he's gotten his friends involved. Gregory Hines and Phylicia Rashad give voice to Little Bill's parents; Ruby Dee plays his great grandmother, Alice the Great; and Madeline Kahn is next-door neighbor Mrs. Shapiro.

"They are people who know [Cosby] and appreciate his talent, and I think having him as the creator [of 'Little Bill'] has really made it possible for us to have just an incredible voice cast," Burgess said.

Khan recently revealed she's battling ovarian cancer. Her role in "Little Bill" is small (her character appeared in just one scene in the first two episodes), and Burgess said Khan's character has not had to be recast yet. Burgess said Khan expressed an interest in doing as much as she can to remain with the show during her cancer treatment.

Several of the "Little Bill" stories are based on Cosby's children's book series of the same name that inspired the TV show. But with less than a dozen books in print and plans for 26 episodes (52 stories) in its first season, original stories have been written for "Little Bill."

"Mr. Cosby was our inspiration," Burgess said. "He's kind of like a jazz artist, but instead of playing an instrument he sort of plays his brain and takes off on subjects and things that interest him or concern him."

Rob Owen can be reached at (412) 263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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