There are big changes in store for Big Bird and the rest of the "Sesame Street" gang this fall -- the biggest changes in the history of the show.
New actors, new muppets, new music and a whole new street of people and places are being added as the greatest kids' show of all time enters its 25th season and decides to tackle some of the complicated issues facing families today.
"This is a season of change for us," says Michael Loman, who was named executive producer in December. "We want to make 'Sesame Street' more responsive to today's children."
The changes Loman announced yesterday include:
* Eight new muppets from Jim Henson's shop, seven of which will be female.
"In terms of actors, there's always been as many women as men," Loman says. "But we've been criticized in the past for not having enough female puppets on the show. And I think that's an accurate criticism. And this specifically seeks to address that."
Three of the puppets are members of the Squirrelles, a singing group of female squirrels who do Motown music in the style of the Supremes.
* A new musical director, Robby Merkin, who did scores for "The Little Mermaid" and "Little Shop of Horrors."
Musical guests will include: the Neville Brothers, Little Richard, Marilyn Horne and Elton John.
Merkin's new compositions will stress interactive songs and dances to get children on their feet and moving about during the hourlong episodes each day.
* Four new live characters, including one played by comedian Ruth Buzzi, best known for her work on "Laugh-In."
The other new live characters will include an Asian-American woman who teaches dance and an African-American husband and wife with a 6-month-old baby. She runs a day-care center, and he's a park ranger.
* A new street called "around the corner," where the new characters and puppets will live and work.
The new street, which adjoins "Sesame Street" at the site of Big Bird's nest will include a playground, thrift shop, dance studio and muppet hotel named the Furry Arms.
"By expanding the street and going around the corner, we will have other places to hang out beyond the stoop of 123 Sesame Street, and we will be able to explore family issues which we think are so important to kids today," says Sonia Manzano, who plays Maria on the show.
"When 'Sesame Street' first started 25 years ago, most kids were at home watching television with their parents.
"Now, most kids are in day care," she says. "And, so, we're able to deal with the problems those kids might be having by having the new set with an actual day care on Sesame Street and dealing with things, like, "Yes, your mother will come back. Yes, she has to go to work." We can go through the routines a child will go through in nursery or day care."
Acknowledging the possibility that such wholesale change could confusing to the 3-to-5-year-old target audience, Loman says there will be a "transition period" this fall.
"We're planning to use Big Bird as much as possible in the season as a familiar hand who will introduce children to the new characters," he says.
Big Bird was on hand at the Universal Hilton here yesterday as PBS made children's programming the centerpiece of its promotional push for the new fall season.
But he really wasn't necessary. The ratings for children's programming on public TV were cause enough for celebration.
The preschool audience for public television's kids' programs increased by 37 percent this season over the year before. And, last year, they had jumped by 40 percent over 1990-91. That means kids' viewing is up 77 percent in two years for PBS.
As commercial broadcasters come under increasing fire for not living up to the Children's Television Act of 1990, public television officials are committing more and more resources to kids' TV.
"For PBS, children's programming is not an inconvenient regulation or a way to lure advertisers," says Kathy Quattrone, vice president for children's programming at PBS. "It's a fundamental part of what we are."
She attributed the kids' ratings to continued growth by "Sesame Street" and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," and the additions of "Lamb Chop's Play-Along" and "Barney & Friends" to the PBS lineup. She singled out "Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego" for bringing older children to public television.
During a panel discussion, featuring Sheryl Leach, the creator and executive producer of "Barney & Friends," Quattrone announced that a task force has been set up in response to complaints about how kids' TV characters, such as Barney, have been used by some PBS stations during pledge drives. She said the task force will recommend "guidelines" on fund-raising during the hours when kids are watching.
Leach answered several questions about the current round of Barney bashing, by explaining that the program is targeted at an even younger audience than "Sesame Street" -- kids 3 years old.
"It doesn't bother us. Our program is directed at children, only at children. . . . There is nothing for adults. No humor, nothing. It's all for preschoolers."
Leach says "Barney & Friends" will feature more multicultural themes, as well as deal with single-parent families and a parents losing their jobs.