ABC, responding to concerns from stations across the country that the network's new Saturday morning cartoon "Tales From the Cryptkeeper" might be too scary for young children, has decided to replace the rotting, cackling corpse puppet who was going to introduce the show with a milder, animated version in striped pajamas and fuzzy bunny slippers.
As an additional precautionary move, ABC is developing a "viewer guide package," with the help of a child psychologist, to detail what it says are the educational elements and morality tales in each episode. Those will be sent out to parents who write or call in with complaints after the series premieres Sept. 18.
In a letter mailed to network-affiliated stations last month, ABC's president of children's programming, Jenny Trias, called the new cartoon Cryptkeeper "more child-viewer friendly."
"I'm surprised that 'Tales From the Cryptkeeper' received such a strong reaction in the press and with the television affiliates before they ever saw the series," Toper Taylor, senior vice president of Nelvana Entertainment, which produces "Cryptkeeper" for ABC, said in an interview this week. "Because we're the company that produces 'Babar,' and we've won Emmy Awards for children's programming."
"Cryptkeeper" is being co-produced by the same people behind HBO's "Tales From the Crypt," an adult cable series that lets the blood flow. Both series are based on the old E.C. Comics that in the 1950s were the subject of Senate hearings on whether comic books are harmful to children.
"We've been responsible in our production and adaptation of 'Cryptkeeper,' " Taylor said. "If you look at the underlying properties in 'Batman' and 'X-Men,' they're violent, gory and sometimes sexy, and yet those are the No. 1 show in syndication and the No. 1 show on Saturday mornings, respectively."
At an affiliates meeting in June in Century City, some station executives were shocked when ABC showed footage of HBO's animatronic Cryptkeeper, a ghoulish corpse with putrid flesh, introducing him as the network's newest kiddie host.
"During the affiliates meeting, some of the general managers expressed concern about the animatronic host," said ABC spokeswoman Patty McTeague. "Although it only represents a minute-and-a-half worth of program time in each episode, they were concerned that it would be too frightening for children."
The network received more heat, McTeague said, following a story published by The Times in June detailing how the "car-tombs," as they were being promoted, would push the envelope of children's programming.
"We had not shot the wraparounds yet," McTeague said. "Nothing had been finalized. So we opted to take the conservative route and go with an animated Cryptkeeper, but much, much more conservative than the HBO character. Now he will be no more frightening than a Beetlejuice or Ghostbuster or any character you would see on Halloween night."
McTeague also denied early reports that any characters would die in the cartoon. And she said that the "viewer guide package" being developed is nothing unusual: "Every season we do that for our children's shows. It's a community-relations tool that we provide to educators and parents."
Although the face will be changed, the voice of HBO's Cryptkeeper, provided by John Kassir, will remain the same for ABC's animated Cryptkeeper.
"The show will not be hurt by this change," Nelvana's Taylor said, "and it may help it receive a higher degree of accessibility among parents and affiliates, which is key."