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PBS Slates Children's Arts Series : Television: Penn & Teller will host 'Behind the Scenes,' aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds. It premieres in September.

February 12, 1992|JANE HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Public-TV station WNET said Tuesday that it will produce a 10-part series to teach children about the creative process behind the visual and performing arts. "Behind the Scenes," which is aimed at the 8- to 12-year-old audience, will premiere in September on PBS.

It will be hosted by the comedy/magician team of Penn & Teller and will feature such artists as painter David Hockney, cartoonist Matt Groening, sculptor Nancy Graves and painter Robert Gil de Montes.

"Behind the Scenes" will be funded in part by a $1.5-million grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

"This is the largest grant we've ever given to a TV series, and we think it's one of the most significant projects the NEA has ever been involved in," endowment Chairman John Frohnmayer told a news conference. " 'Behind the Scenes' will help children get behind the creation of art by showing artists at work, and it will also help show children that they can be creative themselves."

McDonald's restaurants is the sole corporate underwriter for the series, which has a $4.8-million production budget. Executives at WNET and McDonald's declined to discuss how much money McDonald's is contributing to the series, which also has some funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and several foundations. But in addition to providing money for production, the huge fast-food chain is expected to provide significant promotional support and funding for accompanying educational materials.

WNET executives said that such a series is needed more than ever now, because arts education has been one of the first items eliminated during cutbacks at schools across the country. In New York City, they said, nearly two-thirds of the school children receive no instruction in arts and culture.

"This is not a middle-class, elitist enterprise," said Alice Trillin, co-director of Learning Designs, the New York-based production company that is producing the series.

Instead of being a "Great Works of Western Art"-style series, Trillin said, "Behind the Scenes" will use animation, computer paintboxes and other TV techniques to create a highly visual series.

In one segment shown at the news conference, Penn & Teller illustrated how artists create perspective, while Hockney was shown painting a picture of a chair that looks more like "a walk around the chair" than a flat representation of the chair. Other episodes will deal with music, theater and dance.

"Behind the Scenes" also illustrates the difficulties of funding for PBS series. Although the NEA asked for proposals for an arts-educations series on TV, it took six years to bring the series to production.

"Corporate support was really hard to come by, especially for children's programming," Trillin said.

Even now, WNET President William F. Baker said, the station still needs to raise another $1.3 million to complete the $4.8-million budget. WNET will cover any shortfall out of its own operating funds, he said.

"The dilemma of being a producing station for PBS is that you usually have to commit to the production before all of the money can be raised," Baker said. "Obviously, we hope that we will raise the additional $1.3 million. But if we don't, it will come out of our hide."

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