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Thursday, September 16, 2021

By Lynn Elber
 

LOS ANGELES (AP)—It's a good time to be a preschooler with TV privileges.

You can watch classics including “Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,” always worth your attention. And you're the target audience for shows that take a new approach to helping you grow up while being entertained.

Case in point: Cartoonito, a programming block of animated shows that debuts Monday on Cartoon Network and HBO Max. It was developed with what its producers call “humancentric learning” at is core.

“It really is about leaning into our humanity and helping children be the best humans they can be,” said Laura Brown, an educational psychologist who worked with Warner Bros. on the framework designed for Cartoonito.

Paying attention to the pint-sized crowd is also good business, said Tom Ascheim, Warner Bros. Global president for kids, young adults and classics.

“Our mission is to become a full-service kids and family brand. To do that, we can't leave out the youngest viewers who make up half of the kids' audience,” he said. Families with children also tend to be loyal and steady customers.

For an enterprise whose name conjures up images of little cartoons, its goals are big indeed. They include celebrating individuality and originality and fostering creativity, compassion and inclusion.

Among the new fare is “Little Ellen,” which follows the adventures of a 7-year-old, risk-taking Ellen DeGeneres in her native New Orleans. The stated goal, aka the vegetable part of the meal: Help children learn to manage their emotions and be resilient and optimistic.

“Little Ellen” will be on Cartoonito on HBO Max, along with the season-two debut of “The Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo,” projects with bestselling children's book author Mo Willems, and new and library seasons of “Sesame Street.”

Sesame Workshop, the maker of “Sesame Street,” signed a five-year deal with HBO Max in late 2019. The series that launched on public TV is still available on PBS and PBS.org, with new episodes airing on a delayed basis after debuting on HBO Max.

On Cartoon Network, the Cartoonito block will air weekdays from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. EDT and in a two-hour segment on weekends starting at 6 a.m. EDT. The lineup includes “Mush-Mush & The Mushables,” about tiny guardians of the forest, and “Thomas & Friends: All Engines Go.”

The approach underlying Cartoonito is based on modern tenets of psychology and education, Brown said, with the latter emphasizing “higher order skills” including collaboration and critical thinking, as opposed to rote learning of information.

Parents and caregivers, please note there's homework for you. With “Little Ellen,” for example, a psychologist devised games to be played with children to develop the skills, such as emotion management, depicted in the show.

Key learning scenes are identified by labels, and there are 15-second “bumpers” that run before shows and cue adults on what will be addressed, Brown said. In the series about Thomas the Tank, that could be problem-solving and teamwork.

Diversity is a key part of Cartoonito. “Little Ellen” includes same-sex couples among the cartoon's adult characters—something that DeGeneres, a producer on the show, and Warner say shouldn't raise red flags.

“It's these sweet little characters that always have the best intentions and are hopefully teaching kindness and supporting one another, and everything that a cartoon should be,” DeGeneres said.

“But it just happens to have a couple of characters that have same-sex parents. which is great. I think it's always important for kids to be exposed to what is reality. This is reality,” she said. “It's supportive.”

The goal is that the characters and those who create them “look like the real world,” not to pursue a social agenda, said Amy Friedman, head of kids and family programming for Warner Bros.

“We are not aiming to push boundaries. We are aiming to be very intentional about what it is that we're showing and saying, and what the kids are learning,” Friedman said. “We are lucky to be able to be starting this at a time when we are all so much clearer now about what representation looks like.”

While other streaming services (Netflix among them) have gotten a jump on wooing the same demographic, Ascheim struck a confident note about how Cartoonito will fare.

“We're obviously not the first to the preschool space, but I think the advantage we have is that we're able to take a more modern, inclusive approach to our preschool initiatives,” he said.