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A Future Made Up of 'Puzzleworks' : Television: KCET hopes to enter the children's market with its new $11-million series, featuring multiethnic puppets living in a magical playhouse.

August 10, 1994|JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From planets to puppets.

In the 1980s, the largest production at Los Angeles public-television station KCET Channel 28 was a subject as huge as the universe--the $8.2-million, 13-hour PBS series "Cosmos."

Now in the 1990s, it's "The Puzzleworks," an $11-million (and still counting) children's series featuring puppets, designed to convey down-to-earth messages of racial harmony, gender differences and individuality, and to help young viewers learn about making decisions.

Co-produced by KCET and Lancit Media Productions Ltd. (the company that makes PBS' "Reading Rainbow"), the weekday series will premiere in January. It's aimed at children between the ages of 2 and 6.

"Cosmos," said Stephen Kulczycki, KCET senior vice president for programming and one of the executive producers of "The Puzzleworks," "put KCET on the map in a way it hadn't been before, and this ("Puzzleworks") is a very big part of the way we see our future. We were wanna-bes; we wanted to get into children's television. There's a desperate need to provide children's television that helps kids figure out the world they're in."

Taping has just been completed at KCET's studios in Hollywood on the first 40 episodes. Another batch of 25 is scheduled to begin production in January, but that timetable could be delayed if KCET and Lancit are unable to secure more corporate and foundation money.

The producers estimate that another $5.5 million to $6.5 million needs to be raised. Their contract with the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which commissioned the series in 1991, calls for 65 episodes. CPB kicked in $4.5 million; another $3.5 million came from Southern California Edison after the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

To a degree, KCET and Lancit have an ace in the hole. Beginning next June, they intend to take the "Sesame Street" and "Barney" route of selling tag-along toys, games and other "Puzzleworks" merchandise--including puzzles, of course. Seven licensees have already been signed--giving the producers guarantees of $8 million over three years--and more are expected.

But to complete the first 40 episodes, the producers had to use $3 million of the advance licensing guarantees. KCET insists there was no production overage. "It was just a matter of not getting funding to the amount we needed," said Barbara Goen, vice president of public information for the station.

Asked how KCET could guarantee it would get the money for the next 25 if it couldn't secure it for the first 40, Kulczycki said: " Guarantee is a state of mind. . . . We've got a number of (corporate and foundation) leads that are extremely interested in it. We aren't going to say now who they are, but we have leads that make us think that one of these is very likely to come through to help us. It's a calculated gamble, like anything else."

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But if there's a worst-case scenario and the producers get nothing more beyond the remaining $5 million in licensing guarantees, wouldn't they be short at least $500,000 for the next 25 episodes? "We're going to get there," the KCET station executive insisted. "It is not a debatable issue in our minds."

Should the private funders come forward and the "Puzzleworks" products sell, KCET and Lancit hope to do more than the 65 episodes they are committed to. Proceeds from the merchandise will be funneled back into production.

Cecily Truett, co-executive producer of the series with her husband, Larry Lancit, president of Lancit Media, professes no doubt that "Puzzleworks" will make it. She likens it to "a soap opera for preschoolers," even though there is no ongoing story line.

"The only thing we don't have is continuity," she explained. "(It's) the emotional dynamic of what's going on, the emotional connection between the audience and the material, that irresistible magnetism to feel vicariously or to identify emotionally with what's going on."

So who are these puppets whom the producers hope to make as familiar--and commercial--as Big Bird, Kermit, Miss Piggy and that adorable purple dinosaur? They are three boys and three girls, as diverse as a dream political ticket:

* Leon MacNeal, a feisty, smart, inquisitive African American boy from Manhattan's Upper West Side, who lives with his mother and grandmother (his father has died), loves science and cracks the best jokes.

* Jody Silver, a Lithuanian American Jewish girl from Cincinnati. Offbeat, sensitive, artistic, she sees beauty everywhere, as evidenced by her wide, wonderful and offbeat collection of hats.

* Ben Olafsen, a trusting, independent, loyal Norwegian German American farm boy from South Dakota. He loves animals, especially his prize pig Hammy, and plays a mean trumpet.

* Kiki Flores, a first-generation Mexican American from San Antonio, Tex., who speaks two languages fluently. Determined, efficient, inventive, she is a natural leader.

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