SECTION: Calendar; Part 6; Page 1; Column 1; Entertainment Desk
HEADLINE: EXPLOSION IN CHILDREN'S FILMS AND TV PROGRAMS
BYLINE: By LEE MARGULIES, Times Staff Writer
An international conference on motion picture and television production for children opened here with an overwhelmingly upbeat report on the booming market for such fare in the United States.
Delegates to the 30th annual meeting of the International Centre of Films for Children and Young People, convening at USC this week in their first such session ever held in the United States, were told that the last few years has seen an explosion in film and TV programming for children. For example:
Margaret Loesch, president of Marvel Productions, which makes such animated programs as "The Muppet Babies" and "Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends," said that the animation industry is enjoying its busiest year ever. Ten years ago, she said, there were four major animation companies in the Los Angeles area producing about 300 half-hour shows; today there are eight companies working on at least 900 half-hours.
Tom Griffin, president of Sunbow Productions, which produces "The Great Space Coaster" and the "G.I. Joe" and "Transformers" cartoon series, said that when his company had tried to launch "The Great Space Coaster" in the syndication market five years ago, it was an uphill battle just to get it on 56 stations. This fall, he said, there will be 16 such first-run series battling for viewers' attention, from "Masters of the Universe" to "Inspector Gadget" and "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids."
Phyllis Tucker Vinson, vice president for children's programs at NBC, said there is now so much children's programming available in syndication that her network, despite ranking first in the competitive Saturday morning ratings, is having difficulty selling advertising time for the fall. "It makes the networks a little nervous," she said.
Nancy Steingard, vice president for programming and business affairs at Family Home Entertainment, said that in the area of home video, children's programming is the most important segment of the industry after feature films.
Catherine Wyler, director of children's and cultural programming at the Public Broadcasting Service, noted that children's programming has been listed as the top priority of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Kathryn Galan, vice president of Atlantic Releasing Corp., which distributed the theatrical films "The Smurfs and the Magic Flute" and "Here Come the Littles," said there is new respect for the earning potential of G-rated movies, provided that they can be produced and marketed within tight budget limits.
They and other executives active in the children's TV and film area spoke Tuesday at a symposium sponsored jointly by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and the Children's Film and Television Center of America. The latter organization, which is headquartered at USC and is affiliated with the university's school of cinema and TV, is the U.S. representative to the Paris-based International Centre of Films for Children and Young People and is hosting the conference here this week.
The conference is being attended by 28 foreign delegates, representing such countries as China, the Soviet Union, Australia, France, Yugoslavia, Colombia, Finland, West Germany, India and Italy. They are educators, film makers and film commission executives whose national affiliates of the International Centre sponsor children's film and video festivals, promote the production of children's movies and TV programming and initiate and exchange research about the effects of media on youngsters.
Along with about 150 members of the public, they heard a variety of reasons at the symposium for the boom in U.S. production for children. Among them: the growth of independent TV stations, which have created new outlets for syndicated programming; the growth of the cable TV and home-video markets; a spurt in the birth rate; a new emphasis on retailing to the young, and a greater interest on the part of parents in what their children are watching.
What they didn't hear, however, was an assurance that the increased quantity will necessarily result in increased quality. While that was the implied message of most of the speakers -- whose rationale seemed to be that the more times that children's producers get to bat, the more they will hit home runs -- there were several discordant notes sounded.
In the motion picture and home-video areas, both Steingard and Galan said, quality is not as important to the success of a children's product as the degree of marketability it has -- either in brand-name association, such as Disney, or in recognizable characters (from TV series or toys, for instance). Television cartoon series increasingly are being based on toys.
"It's a sad fact," Galan said, "but it appears to be true that 'Care Bears' and 'He-Man,' which are not great movies, will outdraw movies like 'Return to Oz' or 'The Black Cauldron,' which have many more millions of dollars poured into them and which are of tremendous quality."
After hearing the presentations, PBS' Wyler remarked during a question-and-answer period that, "I think it's fairly pathetic that the only things that go are what's already known. If that were true in books, where would we be?"