When children tune in to Fox on Oct. 3, the Saturday morning that the animated series "X-Men" had been set to premiere, they will be greeted by . . . a new PBS series.
The idea, according to both Fox and PBS, is to promote the show--which is called "Ghostwriter" and uses a mystery format to promote literacy--to children who might otherwise not watch PBS.
"Traditional publicity tends to reach adults very effectively, but kids can be very difficult to get your message across to," said Tina Peel, project director for "Ghostwriter" at the Children's Television Workshop, which is producing the program. "And we know that on Saturday morning, millions of kids are watching television."
The "Ghostwriter" special will be hosted by Gabrielle Carteris and Austin Green of Fox's "Beverly Hills, 90210."
Like the "Ghostwriter" series to follow, the special will be a mystery in which children solve crimes and puzzles with the help of a ghost who communicates through reading and writing. It will end in a cliffhanger whose resolution can be discovered if the children tune in to PBS the following evening at 6 p.m.
The deal with Fox was arranged through the shoe company Nike Inc., which was the major underwriter of "Ghostwriter" and is a frequent advertiser on Fox. Liz Dolan, Nike's vice president for corporate communications, said that the idea came from officials at the shoe company who were working on publicizing the series.
Margaret Loesch, president of Fox Children's Network, said that Fox agreed to preempt the premiere of "X-Men," which had been scheduled for that morning. The network will run the commercials it had planned to run during "X-men," with two free spots going to Nike that announce the company as "Ghostwriter's" underwriter, she said.
Fox is promoting "Ghostwriter" even though it will compete with local programming offered by Fox affiliates on Sunday evenings.
"We had to wrestle with the possibility that we would basically be promoting the competition," Loesch said. "But both (Fox Broadcasting President) Jamie Kellner and I felt an overriding obligation to do it. We felt it's something we ought to do, that we ought to look toward the greater good."
Fox is considering airing a second "Ghostwriter" special during the month after the series' premiere, Loesch said.
"Ghostwriter" is the biggest educational project for both the Children's Television Workshop and PBS since "Sesame Street" debuted in 1969.
And while "Sesame Street" was also launched in cooperation with a commercial network, the current deal with Fox is part of a growing new trend in public broadcasting to look to commercial concerns for partnerships.
For example, PBS recently cooperated with NBC for coverage of the Democratic and Republican party conventions, and last year Boston public-television station WGBH produced a program that appeared on both PBS and ABC, where it aired as an "Afterschool Special."