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‘Arthur’ Ever So Gently Climbs Past ‘Barney’

Verne Gay Newsday

He is perhaps the world’s friendliest aardvark.

Yet - and this is the good part - he’s not cloying or cutesy. He has a little sister who mercilessly bugs him. And his very best friend in the whole wide world is a rabbit.

If you have a TV and a kid, then you know who we are talking about.

“Arthur,” the animated PBS series that is midway through its first season, has become the top-rated children’s show on public television, according to its producer.

Has this sunk in yet? “Arthur” has overtaken “Barney.” Thirty-year-old “Sesame Street” has been pushed into seventh place. Nine million kids are tuning in each week, slightly more than watch “Barney,” and that’s a huge number by any yardstick.

Because ratings shifts of this sort are unusual in the rarefied world of PBS, the overnight emergence of “Arthur” is a big deal, indeed. Consider that when “Barney” rocketed to national fame three seasons ago, a noticeable shift in the cultural landscape of these United States took place: Purple was suddenly a fashionable color; millions of people sang “I love you, you love me” under their breath; some fanatics named their newborns “Baby Bop”; and, yes, some distracted parents even wanted to kill Barney.

Meanwhile, the big purple guy, it was widely rumored, hired Mike Ovitz as his agent.

And now “Arthur” is top dog, so to speak.

“I am so happy this happened,” says Marc Brown, author of the “Arthur” books series who serves as a consultant to the series. “I’ve been complaining about the general quality of children’s programming for so long. … My first thought (when the show moved into first place) was ‘No. 1 without any bullets. …”’

To be fair, Barney did not exactly blast his way to fame and fortune either. But the fact is, it would be hard to find a gentler show than “Arthur.” It also is superbly animated and one of the best-looking children’s shows on all of TV. WGBH in Boston is the producing station, and Montreal-based CINAR Films does the animation.

For those of you who may be unaware of the Arthur phenomenon now under way, let us fill you in. Arthur is an 8-year-old with huge glasses. His little sister, D.W., pesters him. (Baby Kate doesn’t.) Mother and Father are never flustered by anything. Buster is a rabbit and good pal. There also are school friends such as the Brain (animal genus unknown), Binky Barnes (bulldog) and Muffy (wealthy chimp). Their teacher is Mr. Ratner, whom they call The Rat (he is, literally).

Arthur has “adventures” - we use the word loosely. Mostly, he’s just like many kids. Examples: He goes to camp and hates it. He gets chicken pox and can’t go to the circus. He has problems with his eyeglasses. And so on. Brown has written 30 “Arthur” books, which have sold 10 million copies. Most of this season’s 30 original episodes are based on these.

“The appeal (of Arthur) has to do with the authenticity of the experiences the characters have,” says Carol Greenwald, executive producer of the show. Kids watch or read something “if it feels real to them. It doesn’t matter if it’s an aardvark, bear or rabbit. Arthur feels like what any 8-year-old experiences.”

Which brings us to one of the true anomalies of this show. PBS research has found that it also appeals to 2- to 3-year-olds as well as older children. This is one reason it has overtaken “Barney,” which is heavily favored by the much younger crowd.

Brown, an Erie, Pa., native who now lives with his family in Hingham, Mass., first thought up the idea for the series in 1976. His son, Tolon, asked him to “tell me a story about a weird animal.”

“I guess I thought alphabetically,” Brown said. The story was about an aardvark who wanted to change his nose. Brown, who had just lost his job as a teacher, decided to write (and illustrate) a book, which he sold to Atlantic Monthly Press.

A couple of years ago, Brown got a call from Greenwald, who says her “sneaky goal” was to encourage kids to read after watching a TV show. Studies, she says, have determined that kids are more likely to read and go to the library after watching shows based on books.

After reading an “Arthur” to her then-3-year-old, she thought, “How could we take this to the next step?” From such ideas spring empires. Beyond the books and show, there are audiotapes, toys, puzzles and you-name-it. (A Tickle-Me-Arthur? Not yet.) This month, three videotapes will be released.

Both Brown and Greenwald attribute the current Arthur craze to the show. Thirty half-hours have been produced this season (the show premiered last October), and Greenwald plans another 20 next season (if more funding materializes). Total cost for season one: $12 million.

Brown says his publisher (Little Brown) has sold 3 million copies since the show debuted, and another 2 million reprints were just ordered for March.

And more numbers: In January, “Arthur” got a 1.82 rating in the nation’s top 36 cities to “Barney’s” 1.81 (a rating point represents 1 percent of homes with TV sets) and the gap is expected to widen when February numbers are released. “Sesame Street,” by the way, had a 1.31.

So, Arthur is a star. Soon, he’ll trade in the glasses for shades. And we hear Mike Ovitz is looking for a new job.

xxxx PROGRAM TIMES “Arthur” airs at 2:30 p.m. weekdays on Spokane’s KSPS-Channel 7; also 2 p.m. weekdays on KUID.

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