It doesn't happen often, but sometimes in this job you get to interview puppets. And I don't mean news directors whose strings are pulled by station general managers.
I'm talking about genuine puppets of the Muppet variety. Though Jim Henson's company isn't involved in the new weekday PBS kids' series "Between the Lions," the show's characters would certainly be at home with Kermit, Miss Piggy and the gang.
At the January TV critics press tour in Pasadena, Calif., Theo the lion proved more animated than most network executives. The puppet, operated by principal puppeteer Peter Linz, explained the show's setting, a typical library. Well, not quite typical.
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"Between the Lions"
When: 7 a.m. Tuesday on WQED
"The head librarians are lions and it has a computer mouse named Click the Mouse, and there are two pigeons named Walter and Clay Pigeon," Theo said. "And it's a place where illustrated characters can literally jump off the pages of books and visit us in the library, and we can visit them in their books. And except for all that, it's a typical library."
Theo is joined on the show by his wife, Cleo, and his cubs, Lionel and Leona. Their purpose is to help children learn to read. Executive producer Judy Stoia said "Between the Lions" is designed as a show for children who outgrow "Sesame Street."
"'Sesame Street' teaches numbers and letters, and 'Between the Lions' is aimed at the next age group, 4- to 7-year-old children who are just learning to read," Stoia said. "It's a combination of phonics and whole language and stresses a love of reading."
An episode sent to critics shows how the series uses repetition to teach reading skills. In "Pecos Bill Cleans Up the West," the show concentrates on the "eh" sound in words such as "west," "best," "bet" and "bell."
It's not just puppets reading the Pecos Bill story from a book. Throughout the half-hour, the show jumps from animated shorts ("The Adventures of Cliff Hanger") to puppet singers (The Vowelles) to celebrity guests (Dr. Ruth Wordheimer), all reinforcing the importance of reading.
"Every one of our shows starts with a book or a story or a newspaper article that is read out loud," said Chris Cerf, the show's creative producer. "Then key words are picked from that story or book or newspaper, and the vowels in that key word, the word itself, the word endings are the words we teach that day."
It can be argued that any TV show aimed at children takes them away from reading, but Cerf said the medium can do things a book simply cannot.
"You can't animate a verb in a book. We can do that," he said. "You can't pronounce a word unless you're doing it online. We can do that. We're not trying to replace anything, we're adding something."
He pointed to the idea of verbal blending and how "Between the Lions" can depict putting sounds together to make words.
"We have knights - sort of Monty Python knights - who run [toward each other] at high speeds with parts of words and the words fuse," Cerf said. On the "Between the Lions" Web site (www.pbskids.org/lions), children can fuse words themselves.
Cerf said the hope is "Between the Lions" will motivate children to go to the library or have books read to them.
Storybooks based on "Between the Lions" will be brought to the market, but they'll be produced with input from the same advisers who work on the show.
Peggy Charren, founder of the advocacy group Action for Children's Television, said merchandising doesn't bother her as much as the quantity of merchandising tied to some shows (yes, that means you, "Pokémon").
"The idea that books and videos and games are going to be part of what comes out of this program creates new platforms for learning," she said. "When there's a terrific product that comes out of television, everybody loves it and nobody starts writing nasty stories, parents don't have a fit. It's when the stuff is junk that everybody gets upset."
From the looks of the TV show, "Between the Lions" is in no way junk.