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'Zoo'--will It Pass Syndication Test?

December 31, 1986|LEE MARGULIES | Times Staff Writer

"If we can make it happen here, we can make it happen anywhere," Steve Binder said.

Binder, a producer and director, wasn't crooning a verse from "New York, New York." In fact, he wasn't even talking about New York. He was referring to Los Angeles, and to the critical test that his ambitious new children's series, "Zoobilee Zoo," is facing here.

Despite its elaborate animal costumes, original music and talented cast--headed by Ben Vereen--"Zoobilee Zoo" has faced an uphill battle getting on the air and developing the loyal following it needs to survive.

The syndicated show, which is aimed primarily at preschoolers, is running on about 60 stations at the moment--not enough to bring in hefty support from national advertisers. In Los Angeles, the series got off to a bad start when KTTV Channel 11 introduced it last September at 6 a.m. The distributor quickly arranged for it to move Dec. 1 to KTLA Channel 5, which positioned it Mondays through Fridays at the more accessible hour of 7 a.m.

"Now we're in a good time slot on a big station. This is the test," Binder observed.

"There's no question that we need a showcase or two," acknowledged Jim McDowell, director of marketing services for Hallmark, the greeting-card company that developed the concept for the series and, with DIC Enterprises, footed the bill for its initial 65-episode season.

"Zoobilee Zoo" follows the light-hearted, nonviolent adventures of a group of six animal friends--a lion, a kangaroo, a fox, a beaver, a bear and a cockatoo--each of whom has a particular artistic skill (music, painting, juggling, writing) that is put to use in hopes of stimulating young viewers to explore their own creativity.

"We'd like to be the 'Sesame Street' of the arts," Binder noted, adding that the show's foremost aim, however, is to be entertaining.

Vereen, playing a feisty leopard who is the mayor of "Zoobilee Zoo," appears intermittently through each half-hour show to introduce or comment on the story or to perform a quick song and dance.

His co-stars are Karen Hartman, Forrest Gardner, Louise Vallance, Sandey Grinn, Gary Schwartz and Michael Moynahan.

Shot here last summer after a development period of more than two years, "Zoobilee Zoo" represents an investment of nearly $10 million on the part of Hallmark and its partners, McDowell said. "How long is it going to take to get our investment back? I still don't know the answer to that question," he said in an interview.

McDowell readily acknowledged that Hallmark had public-relations considerations in mind when it launched the venture, hoping to create a TV product as worthy for children as the company's "Hallmark Hall of Fame" has been for adults. As a result, it isn't looking to the show to produce big profits.

But neither is it going to be comfortable with big losses, he added--"Sooner or later, the show will live or die on its ratings and audience share."

"Zoobilee Zoo" already has garnered favorable reaction from the National Education Assn., the American Federation of Teachers and the National Assn. of Elementary School Principals. In an effort to get additional attention, the producers recently invited to Los Angeles Peggy Charren, president and founder of the Boston-based media-reform group Action for Children's Television, which long has espoused better and more diversified programming for youngsters.

Her organization doesn't usually endorse programs, Charren told reporters, "but you can't hide your head in the sand when you have goals to reach." She cited six reasons for her admiration of "Zoobilee Zoo":

Unlike so many TV programs aimed at children, this one is not based on a toy. It focuses its attention on a narrow group of children (preschoolers) instead of trying to appeal to a broad cross-section of age groups. It features real people, not cartoon characters. Its host is not white. It's on daily, "which is the way children watch TV." And, she said, it is trying to broaden children's awareness of the world by building stories around such themes as poetry and living with a disability.

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