Buck Rogers has landed in the 21st Century.
He comes in the form of "Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future," a youth-oriented TV series that touched down a few weeks ago on 96 stations, including KTLA Channel 5 in Los Angeles. If the producers are right, it not only will launch a new age in the kidvid biz but also will change television's future.
The show plays like the old "Buck Rogers" or "Flash Gordon" series of the 1950s, but instead of strings and tin cans, "Captain Power" mixes live-action, computer graphics, character animation, laser technology and a futuristic sci-fi imagination for a concoction that's a cross between "Star Wars" and those now-camp serials of the 1950s.
But in an even more revolutionary twist, it uses an interactive technology that links the home viewer with the broadcast through the use of light beams and computer chips. Kids who buy a special "Captain Power" jet gun can shoot at the TV program like a video game. Hits register digitally in the hand-held device (but not on screen); meanwhile, the program generates its own blasts of light that, if not deflected, can cause the action-figure pilot of the jet-gun to be ejected from the toy onto the floor.
The program already has been attacked by Action for Children's Television, a consumer group, as another step in the erosion of the line separating children's programs from commercials. But sales of "Captain Power" toys are booming, according to Mattel, which makes the toys and co-produces the series.
The toys--ranging in price from $3.95 for action figures to $40 for the interactive XT-7 jet gun--were selling "off the shelf" even before the show came on, says Matt Bousquette, Mattel's director of marketing for boy's brands, "and now that it is on, we're starting to see sales multiply. We've got all the plants running as fast as they possibly can but we expect there will be some serious shortages."
The series itself is the brainchild of Landmark Entertainment's Gary Goddard and Tony Christopher. The longtime fantasy freaks--who left Disney eight years ago to form their own firm--knew they had something different when they came up with the show, but they didn't know how different it would become until they brought the idea to Mattel in hopes of finding a toy sponsor.
"It wasn't our intention (to make the series interactive)," Goddard says, "though clearly when we developed the concept there was the possibility. We told them (Mattel) it was a live-action show with computer animation and they were real interested. A month later they brought us back to a top-secret R&D (research and development) lab and showed us the interactive process and asked if we would like to include it in the show."
Landmark jumped at the idea, and MTS Entertainment, the TV syndication arm of Mattel, became co-producer of Landmark's idea: a serial set 100 years in the future.
Though KTLA is running "Captain Power" Sundays at 8 a.m., it was designed "as a prime-time show; that's the market we're trying to reach," says Goddard, who recently directed the "Masters of the Universe" feature film.
"This is for kids only in the way 'Star Trek' was for kids. When people actually see the show, they see it isn't slam-bash action and that's all. Each story also has a human quality to it--people in jeopardy, people who are sick, people who love and are caring; all the elements of the human spectrum."
In a production sense, he says, it's more like a movie: first-unit film and second-unit action groups, special effects and miniature units and another for computer-generated images. "Then there are the sound-effects people to draw it all together--the first show required 1,100 sound-sync cues," Goddard adds.
But it's the interactive technology that has garnered "Captain Power" so much attention. Mattel won't reveal how the technology works.
What bothers Action for Children's Television is the way the technology is being used. The Boston-based organization filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission lambasting the agency for approving its use for children's programming.
Peggy Charren, president of the consumer group, maintains that "Captain Power" intensifies the trend of toy commercials masquerading as children's programs and claims that this latest technological development makes "second-class viewers" of kids who can't afford the $40 for the rocket-like gun that is the key to the show's interactivity.
"There's no question you can watch it without the toy, and if they never advertised and kids never talked to each other, there wouldn't be a problem, but that's not how it works," Charren says. "You can go to a shooting gallery and not spend a quarter, too, but kids don't."
John Weems, vice president of Mattel's entertainment division and president of MTS Entertainment, says that ads for "Captain Power" accessories will not be a part of the TV broadcast. He insists that the show stands on its own.