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New Page for 'Book of Virtues'

Television: Despite William J. Bennett's previous criticism of public funding for TV, his bestseller is coming in animated form to PBS.

September 02, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As William J. Bennett adjusts and readjusts his large, 6-foot-2-inch frame onto a Grecian-style bench at a Marina del Rey hotel, he looks like a restless man unable to stay still for very long.

To be sure, Bennett has been on the move. Just a few weeks ago, the former Secretary of Education and U.S. drug czar was on GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole's short list for a vice presidential running mate--ultimately won by Jack Kemp, Bennett's colleague at his Washington-based conservative think tank, Empower America. Then, he was seen nightly on CNN verbally jousting with liberal opponents during coverage of the Republican convention in San Diego.

Now, as if daring anyone to keep up with him, Bennett has gone from promoting the GOP to sounding the trumpet for a new show on PBS--never high on the list of favorite Republican government-funded projects.

Specifically, Bennett is getting the word out on the animated series of his best-selling anthology, "The Book of Virtues." The irony that PBS is airing "Adventures From the Book of Virtues" (tonight through Wednesday) doesn't escape Bennett. But he doesn't find it that surprising either.

"When I learned about [the PBS involvement], I chuckled," he says, "because people know that I'm a critic of public funding of television. [Series creator] Bruce [Johnson] decided to go with PBS because they showed the most interest, which follows from their history of quality children's programming. But he would have sold it eventually to somebody--the Discovery Channel, the Arts & Entertainment channel. So while it's interesting that PBS has the series, I don't consider it crucial to its existence on the air."

Nevertheless, "Adventures From the Book of Virtues" represents a PBS milestone, as the first prime-time animated series in the network's history and one of the few in prime time keyed to children and families. It is also Bennett's most direct involvement yet with a television show, after having waged a campaign since last October with Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) against so-called exploitative programming on such afternoon talk shows as "Jerry Springer" and "Ricki Lake."

"I am," Bennett says with understatement, "a critic of television. Television could be better. It's good to be doing something about it."

The series maintains "The Book of Virtues' " structure, grouping classic and nearly forgotten tales and poems by a virtue theme in half-hour episodes. Tonight's bill of "Work" and "Honesty" is followed by Tuesday's "Responsibility" and "Compassion," and finally Wednesday's "Courage" and "Self-Discipline." (Seven more segments of "Adventures" will air over four nights starting Jan. 5, followed by an airing of all 13 half-hour segments.)

While the book includes dozens of stories and poems under each virtue, each introduced by Bennett, the series devised by Johnson and Bennett had to approach the virtues in a fundamentally different way.

"Part of the genesis of this was the same thing that inspired my 'Book of Virtues' volume for young children," Bennett says. "The first book was very thick and big and, I suppose, a little intimidating to some parents, so the smaller volume for young kids made it easier for them. You've got to get to kids with a moral education as soon as possible, and television is a key way to do that."

But just as Bennett claims that he didn't anticipate "The Book of Virtues' " success, he says he never imagined that it would be translated to TV. "But then, when interest started to rise for some kind of TV version, I was very concerned that the original stories weren't altered and affected by TV."

Johnson--who had formed his own company, Porchlight Entertainment, in 1994 after leaving Hanna-Barbera (where he had produced such series as "Timeless Tales" and "The Greatest Adventure")--approached Bennett with the offer of animated versions of select "Book of Virtues" stories.

"I was really struck by how many stories in the anthology hadn't been animated before, incredible stories like 'The Magic Thread,' " Johnson says. The Northwestern University literature major was "struck by the power of the universal themes, virtues embraced by every culture on the planet."

Johnson's background--ranging from his experience in creating children's anthology series to co-editing a teacher's guide, "Morality Examined: A Guideline for Teachers"--helped seal the deal for Bennett. "He seemed," Bennett says, "to intuitively understand the purpose of the book."

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