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Local producers pitch TV program that lets children learn from nature

Thursday, February 15, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Once upon a time, children spent summer days on adventures in the woods. And while some still do, as technology advances -- TV, Internet, PlayStation 2 -- kids have more reasons to stay indoors.

Matthew Craig and Lydia Konecky will be co-hosts of "The Magic Woods," a proposed children's TV show that uses an outdoor setting. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

The producers of "The Magic Woods" want to change that. This proposed children's television show is being developed locally with hopes of it landing one day on regional TV and later on a national outlet like PBS. The show's makers want to encourage children, with a parent accompanying them, to get back to nature.

Though TV might seem antithetical to that goal, series co-creator, co-host and executive producer Matthew Craig wants "The Magic Woods" to follow in the tradition of Pittsburgh TV greatness.

"Television is a very useful learning tool," Craig said. "Look at 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.' No one feels time spent watching Mister Rogers was wasted. We're working hard to earn the right to carry that legacy, to pick up the torch and move it forward another generation."

Craig, a cartoonist and musician who hosts WYEP's environmental show, "The Allegheny Front," got involved in "The Magic Woods" two years ago at the suggestion of Matt Kambic, the show's co-creator and creative director.

Kambic got the idea for the series after his children attended a nature program at Frick Park Environmental Center where Lydia Konecky is an instructor.

"On meeting her and watching her with children, I said to myself, here is a person who has a certain magnetism and charisma with children that's a cut above other educators I'd seen," Kambic recalled. "She's the kind of person who, when she meets a child, kneels down to talk to them face to face."

Kambic approached Konecky and Craig about co-hosting "The Magic Woods."

The trio spent several months brainstorming, creating characters and nailing down a series concept. About a year lapsed, and the project became dormant until Craig jump-started it again.

"The whole idea now is one of just trying to get a TV show on that will renew in children an awareness that nature is great and a wonderful thing to visit," Kambic said. "Nature is where the world can be experienced in its least preprocessed state. When you're watching TV or playing video games, what you're doing is usually coming from some other source of knowledge. When you go into the woods and feel grass under your feet, that's the world there for you to experience first-hand without any other filters."

The ambitious script for the first episode of "The Magic Woods" sets up regular elements of the show. Episodes begin at the Trailhead, where Craig starts his journey through the woods.

Along the way he meets Konecky and her young charges at The Learning Curve, where they all learn about seeds. At the Early Garden and Greenhouse, Craig chats with Mr. Early, an African-American gentleman in his '50s who enjoys gardening.

Other characters include Perpetual Moe, who has a "Naturescope" on his wheelchair that teaches nature lessons. Puppet regulars include the owl Hooratio Owlger, the tortoise valet Mr. Shelby and the scampering Thelonious Chipmunk.

The script also includes some comedic elements. Whenever Craig says "acorn," one falls from the trees above and lands on his head.

Michael Johnson, who served as associate producer on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," has come aboard "The Magic Woods" as producer. He acknowledged that shooting much of "The Magic Woods" on video in the outdoors will present weather-dependent scheduling challenges. But at least two of the set pieces -- the Trailhead and the Enchanted Glen, a more stylized fantastic part of the Magic Woods -- will be shot on a soundstage. At the Enchanted Glen, the Telling Tree plays a short animated story.

"It's kind of a fantasy area," Johnson said. "Things could happen there that aren't so naturally a part of nature."

For Craig, 38, "The Magic Woods" is an opportunity to acquaint a new generation with the woods in a way that isn't as natural to them as it was to children of decades past. Even the woods he played in as a child in Forest Hills are gone, cleared to make way for new housing.

"It's about letting children know something magical about the everyday process of nature," Craig said. "There's never been anything like this. The current trend [in children's TV] is to go to exotic locations with animals. We want to do backyard nature. Things where they can go outside and pick up an acorn and know what it is."

Craig has taken the lead in developing "The Magic Woods" and raising funds to get it on the air. He is applying for nonprofit corporation status for the show, but he's already got some donations committed to the pilot episode's $176,000 cost, including a substantial contribution from the Laurel Foundation.

"We already have evidence that this is a good idea because of foundation response to it," Kambic said. "We've laid out a nice plan for where we want the show to go, and we've gotten a positive response on the idea alone. We're in a position now to create a broadcast-quality pilot."

"The Magic Woods" is being developed independent of local PBS member station WQED and follows a streamlined business plan similar to "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

A "Magic Woods" board of directors is being created, and members include Paul Wiegman, formerly vice president for resources conservation of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, and Horace Payne Jr., senior counsel at Dominion Resources. Advisers to the board include U.S. Rep. William Coyne and Children's Museum director Jane Werner.

"Anything having to do with children that's a gentle approach to education is the way to go," Werner said. "Just being a mother, I know there's a need for programming that's not quite in the same vein as the 'Power Rangers.' That's why I look forward to anything that has a positive message."

Many people have ideas for TV shows, but few turn into series that get on the air. "The Magic Woods" is still a long way from "Barney" status, but with the pilot script complete, work has started on treatments for 12 more episodes.

Craig said they've created a business plan that will maximize every bit of expense. When the pilot is taped in late spring or early summer, Craig intends to shoot additional studio scenes for a second episode.

Producer Johnson doesn't want to trade on his "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" association, but he acknowledged that like the "Neighborhood," the goal of "The Magic Woods" is to lure children without too many bells and whistles.

"A lot of children's television is so flashy," Johnson said. "We don't want to be too much like 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,' but take the good things we see from that and be original in teaching kids about nature and the environment. That's something that's not being done out there."

That's why Johnson and everyone involved in "The Magic Woods" thinks this new children's TV series may successfully originate from Pittsburgh in the next couple of years.

"I think it's so amazing how preordained this is," Johnson said. "It's going to happen and it's up to us to carry it out. We just have such optimism because everybody we talk about the idea with is so excited about it."

Though the chance of getting "The Magic Woods" on the PBS national schedule of children's programming remains a long shot, Kambic said the odds are of no consequence.

"The important thing is to proceed with something you believe in," Kambic said. "All we can do is pursue it and do the best job we can. There are no guarantees, I think we know that. We will just grow this thing. We don't see a door shutting [as a problem], because if one shuts, we'll look at the two next to it and go there."

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