Twin Cities Public Television will burnish its reputation as the airwaves’ most dedicated laboratory for budding scientists with a national, government-funded series — the most ambitious undertaking in the station’s 58-year history.
A $37.8 million grant will fund 40 episodes of an animated science and math program for kids. It piggybacks on the “Sesame Street” model: Educational programming has been shown to strengthen learning readiness, especially for underprivileged children. The funding comes from the Ready to Learn program, administered by the Department of Education, which provides long-term grants in five-year cycles.
“This is 10 times the size of any federal grant we’ve ever seen,” said Richard Hudson, a semiretired TPT producer who was instrumental in securing money for past TPT educational shows, including “SciGirls” and “DragonflyTV.” “It’s a big deal.”
TPT is the only local station to earn a 2015-2020 grant from a program that previously helped the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) launch “Peg + Cat,” which won an Emmy last year for Outstanding Pre-School Children’s Animated Program.
“There is nothing more important than making sure children get the best start possible,” said U.S. Sen. Al Franken, a staunch supporter of the national Ready to Learn Act, which was automatically reauthorized when President Obama signed into law the overhaul of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
“Ready to Learn programming keeps our children engaged, teaching building blocks of education like science, math and literacy,” Franken said.
CPB, the only other recipient during this most recent round, will use its $100 million allotment to build on the success of existing shows, plus develop new programming that integrates science and literacy, including “Ready, Jet, Go!,” a program aimed at encouraging kids ages 3-8 to learn about astronomy and Earth science. It is set to debut in February.
Some kind of hero
The name of the locally produced series has yet to be determined, but the initial proposal authored by the station’s interactive producer, Joan Freese, is titled “Superhero School,” which also is the name of a popular children’s book. In Aaron Reynolds’ 2009 bestseller, a youngster named Leonard must use his superpowers — and math skills — to save his teachers from ice zombies.
One obstacle that may be getting in the way of using the same title: Marvel and DC Entertainment own the trademark on “superhero,” which prevents certain categories of commerce from using the word in new product names.
Despite the red tape, TPT is forging ahead by laying down the framework for a premiere episode with Portfolio Entertainment, the Toronto-based animation company that has worked on “The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!”
Producers also are in the process of hiring writers and determining whether some of the show’s live segments could be shot in the Twin Cities.
Hudson downplayed his role in snagging the game-changing grant. He did insist that TPT submit Freese’s proposal alongside one that initially seemed more promising, if only because of its association with the children’s book publishing company, Scholastic.
Freese’s pitch may have gotten the edge due to its broad-ranging strategy. It includes the development of two dozen online games, classroom material and some programming specifically targeted at Spanish-speaking audiences. In fact, only 30 percent of the funding will be focused on the TV product.
Terry O’Reilly, TPT’s chief content officer, and others are heartened that the government is committed to innovative educational tools.
“They’re not just paying to produce a program,” O’Reilly said. The funding represents a commitment to “investigate opportunities, to see what mix can be used in education and be successful.”