Fox's cartoon executive won't cater to toys


HOLLYWOOD -- Margaret Loesch spends much of her time in a fantasy land, preoccupied with thoughts of Peter Pan, Tinker Bell, killer tomatoes, three not-so-little pigs and at least two talking dogs.

As president of the new Fox Children's Network, Loesch works and lives among the denizens of unreal estate. But she also knows the state of things in the real world of television and is a practiced player in the competition for America's cartoon-viewing public.

Loesch, 44, a veteran of children's television who supervised development of the successful Muppet Babies and Smurfs shows, was brought in by Fox executive Jamie Kellner to oversee the creation of the network's Saturday morning programming.

Loesch was president and CEO of Marvel Productions. Then along came Kellner, who made her the one offer she couldn't refuse: a challenge.

"I didn't come over here for money because I'm not making any more money," said Loesch, chuckling. "I was romanced by the thought that this was the underdog company and this would be a real adventure."

The word adventure might be an overstatement. Fox's venture into children's programming might not be an adventure at all. As it has in other assaults on the programming fortresses of the Big Three networks, Fox is expecting some financial casualties before it can be considered a tour de force in the battle for the hearts and minds of America's young.

This is especially true in the case of Loesch, who has determined not to have toy-based shows at Fox -- those programs centered around existing toy lines such as GI Joe or My Little Pony that bring big money but even bigger headaches to childrens' TV producers.

"It helps pay the overhead, but it is very hard and very constrictive creatively," said Loesch, pointing out the difficulty in finding good story lines within the limitations of the toy. GI Joe, for example, had to remain in a military theme. "I didn't want to put up any roadblocks for our creative people. I wanted to take them away."

Now several months into its inaugural season -- programming debuted in September -- Loesch's creative carte blanche has produced an eclectic lineup:

* "Bobby's World": An idea originally conceived more than decade ago by comedian Howie Mandel, the viewer sees life in the Generic family through the eyes of 4-year-old Bobby. Bobby is usually accompanied by his dog, Roger.

* "Zazoo U.": Created by children's author and illustrator ShanDeRolf, the show centers on an institute of higher learning populated by a menagerie of offbeat animals.

* "Tom and Jerry Kids Show": Hanna-Barbera's Oscar-winnincartoon duo is portrayed during Tom the cat and Jerry the mouse's younger years. Other features are Spike and Tike and Droopy the Dog.

* "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes": Based on the 1977 cult moviof the same name, the series stars John Astin as the voice of crazed scientist Dr. Putrid T. Gangreen.

* "Piggsburg Pigs": Produced by former network programminguru Fred Silverman, the show takes place in a town populated entirely by pigs. Piggsburg boasts such attractions as Newpork Beach and radio station OINK.

* "Peter Pan and the Pirates": Featuring "Rocky Horror PicturShow" star Tim Curry as the voice of Captain Hook, this is a cartoon journey through Neverland led by Peter Pan, Tinker Bell, Wendy and Tiger Lilly.

* "Fox's Fun House": A question-answer and games competitiobetween two teams of youths in which the winners collect prizes in a three-story, high-tech "fun house."

Loesch is proud of this lineup, a package she feels harkens back to the golden age of children's TV.

"I was a fan of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Tom and Jerry," said Loesch, a native of Pass Christian, Miss., who was the first woman to run a major programming animation studio and at the tender age of 29 was head of children's programming for NBC. "I'm a fan of cartoons and children's shows that didn't just talk down to kids, that had something for adults, and that's what we're trying to do."

Loesch says one of the challenges of programming children's TV in the 1990s is discouraging gratuitous violence or the perpetuation of damaging stereotypes. In this regard, she says groups such as the Boston-based Action for Children's Television, led by consumer watchdog Peggy Charren, have helped her set guidelines.

"I don't want anyone telling us how to program, but I have to give credit to people like Peggy because what they've done is they've stimulated our thinking," said Loesch, mother of a 2-year-old son who already is watching TV. "I happen to believe that if story-telling is emphasized, then we're not offending anybody. It's lazy programming and writing when you have to resort to cheap jokes or easy violence.

"I think for me the problem is volume and balance," Loesch added. "For me, the key is to supervise what [a child] watches. I'm not in favor of any child watching hours and hours and hours of programming."

The dual roles of programmer and mother gives Loesch a sense of urgency to make prudent use of the time children do spend watching television.

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