Los Angeles -- Look out, Barney and Big Bird. The Frog Scouts, the "We-Did-It-Ourselves" Piggies and "Gullah Gullah Island" are on the way.
That's the message Nickelodeon, the cable network for kids, delivered here yesterday as it unveiled details of a $30 million campaign to win the hearts and minds of pre-school viewers now mainly devoted to PBS.
Nickelodeon's game plan, which begins this fall, looks a lot like the one that works so well for Public Television with kids 2 to 6 years old: Muppet frogs, multiculturalism, sing-alongs, a guy named Henson and lots of childhood development talk.
"We began this initiative with an extensive process of not only studying the real experts, kids, but also bringing in a panel of experts -- everyone from storytellers to playground builders -- to find out how TV can help little kids and have an impact on their life experiences," says Geraldine Laybourne, president of Nickelodeon.
"What we found is that when we were little, young kids usually had parents or primary care givers to help interpret their daily adventures. Now, with 50 percent of women working outside the home, little kids need help in learning how to adapt.
"That's why Nick Jr. will focus on teaching the three P's -- partnership skills, planning skills and problem-solving skills -- in shows that are going to entertain kids while making learning fun," Laybourne added.
Starting in September, two new programs -- "Gullah Gullah Island" and "Allegra's Window" -- will join the Nick Jr. block of pre-school programming, which airs each day from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Critics were given a preview of the shows yesterday.
"Gullah" features the husband-and-wife team of Ron and Natalie Daise, an African-American couple who live on Sea Island off the coast of South Carolina. Like "Sesame Street," children, family members, neighbors and friends gather at the Daise house, where they tell stories, play games and have sing-alongs. The children on the show will also explore the island's Gullah culture (Gullahs were freed slaves who settled on the island).
"Along the way, kids at home will learn about families and basic human values," Laybourne said. "Many kids will see their own culture through this show. Others will be exposed to a culture different from their own. Kids will learn that the differences between cultures can be as interesting and as valuable as the experiences they share."
"Allegra's Window" stars a 3-year-old puppet named Allegra. The key here is that Allegra goes to day care. One of the goals of the show is to teach pre-school kids how to cope with day care, according to Laybourne.
Also arriving in September on Nick Jr. is "Muppet Time" -- the introduction of new Muppet creations from Jim Henson Productions under the direction of Brian Henson, who took over the operation when his father died.
The new Muppets will include a group called "The Extremes," whom Henson described yesterday as "emotionally extreme Muppets who live in a permanent state of emotional panic, really."
Henson says The Extremes will be used "to present and identify emotions for children to help them understand their own feelings and the feelings of others around them."
The "We Did It Ourselves" Piggies -- yes, they are related to Miss Piggy -- teach problem solving, while the four Frog Scouts teach partnership and working together. The Scouts identified themselves yesterday as nephews of Kermit.
The Muppets won't have their own show this fall. Rather, they will appear in two-minute segments between programs to hold children's attention with a steady flow of characters and messages.
The good news is that the new Muppets seem every bit as wonderful as the first generation of Henson creations. The bad news is that the merchandising has already begun. Look for dolls and hand puppets by Christmas.
"There will be some merchandising. But we're very careful to try and stay true to the series and to try and be as creative in merchandising as we are in the television programming," Laybourne says.
"And most people who have been involved with little kids in programming -- like 'Sesame Street's' experience has been -- will tell you that kids really want to have some physical toy or doll that reminds them of the show. Certainly, we've seen this phenomenon with 'Barney.' "