Before joining Home Box Office in the early 1980s, Carol Rosen was an educator who specialized in arts and literacy programs in the New York City public school system.
In one of her more-successful ventures, Rosen used Broadway scores to teach reading in East Harlem. "It was useful in capturing the kids' attention," she said of combining entertainment and education.
Now, as vice president, family programming for HBO, Rosen remembers the lessons of her past. The programs she seeks for HBO and its multiplex spinoff, HBO Family, have to be entertaining, of course -- but with educational content that is not heavy-handed.
Often, she finds the best match in shows adapted from books.
HBO has a smart children's series "Shakespeare: The Animated Tales" and the ethnically diverse "Happily Ever After." And upon its relaunch in February, HBO Family introduced the book-based "George and Martha" and "The Adventures of Paddington Bear" to go with re-airings of favorites "Babar," "The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking," "The Country Mouse and the City Mouse" and "The Adventures of Tintin."
"There aren't any other children's networks that have based so much of what they do on literature properties," Rosen said. " `The Canterbury Tales' [an HBO animated show], I don't think Fox is interested in that," she added, mentioning one of several children's programming competitors.
Rosen has been pleased by HBO subscribers' interest in such series. "When the whole multiplexing thing began, they asked [viewers] what kind of programming they wanted specified on the extra channels. A lot of people asked for family programming."
HBO Family is received in 5.5 million to 8 million homes -- about one-third of the HBO total. It's designed to be a safe haven for children, with its parental initials spelling out its motto: Honest, Brainy, Original.
In addition to the book-based shows, three original series set the tone for the network:
"A Little Curious," a lively, musical preschooler show about basic learning concepts.
"Crashbox," a high-energy computer-inspired game show for grade-schoolers.
"30x30: Kid Flicks," a show featuring documentaries, video diaries, narratives, small animated pieces and short films by 8- to 18-year-old filmmakers.
"The kid audience is a very sophisticated audience," said Dolores Morris, vice president of HBO Family, "especially now that there is so much offered to them."
HBO Family has joined an increasingly crowded field of programmers seeking the attention of eyes that are more likely to be drawn to a computer monitor than a television screen. Even when kids tune to television, there are plenty of choices: PBS, Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, Fox Family Channel, Fox and the other broadcast networks, plus syndicated shows and the whole range of general-purpose cable channels.
While trying to differentiate itself, HBO Family is following a growth strategy not unlike that employed in recent years by the Disney Channel.
Whereas a heavy rotation of family movies once filled the round-the-clock programming needs, HBO Family now has only a few films each day -- usually in prime time. The rest of the schedule is filled with age-group-targeted programming blocks, anchored by original shows.
"When you see things duplicated at other networks, it's interesting," said Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney Channel. "But it's not about focusing on your competition; that's how you lose. Instead, you should be asking, What aren't we doing for our viewers? Where should we be taking them?"
HBO Family wants to take viewers to the edge. "With HBO as our mother ship, we can be a little bit riskier," Morris said. "Our shows look different."
"Crashbox" is a good example.
The show's segments are fast-moving, with attitude and smarts. Morris describes the afterschool program as "CTW meets `South Park.' "
"Crashbox" has many of the same educational values as Children's Television Workshop properties such as "Sesame Street." But the interactive show borrows only the attitude -- not the crass elements -- of Comedy's Central's bad-boy animated series.
"Crashbox" also challenges grade-schoolers with fast-paced games of history, math, spelling, grammar, culture and vocabulary -- and includes the requisite companion Web site.
However, the "poop or scoop" segment may raise some eyebrows: Viewers have to decide whether statements about animals are false (poop) or fact (the real scoop).
Other provocative segments include "psychomath"; "revolting slob," a vocabulary game featuring disgusting people; "skeleton crew," in which a skeleton pirate uses his bones to lay out math problems; and a word scramble in which clues are given through song.
Meanwhile, "30x30: Kid Flicks," a half-hour series with an initial order of 30 episodes, comes across as a scaled-down version of some of HBO's prime-time fare. Topics covered by the children's films include mischievous pets, paparazzi, the dangers of cyberspace, teen promiscuity, racism, homophobia and domestic violence.
And in July, the channel is introducing "What Matters," a magazine-format news show reported by high-schoolers and college students from the CNN student news bureaus. One of the early shows will focus on the conflict in Belfast, and its day-to-day effect on young people.
HBO Family's preschool block is smart and colorful without the saccharin coating.
"A Little Curious," the signature show, has some edge, mostly in the form of music by Pat Irwin of the rock group the B-52s. With various animation styles, the series teaches by bringing to life objects such as Bob the Ball, Mr. String, Doris the Door, Pad and Pencil and the Shoe Family. Cognitive psychologists from the University of Michigan, Carnegie Mellon and Northwestern University serve as advisers.
The 6 a.m.-to-3 p.m. block also includes "Anthony Ant," an animated series about friendly, four-armed insects trying to avoid being squashed in the yard of a human they call Big Foot. "Paddington Bear" follows the curious little fellow of Michael Bond's beloved stories. And "George and Martha," executive-produced by Maurice Sendak, features Nathan Lane and Andrea Martin as the voices of the two hippopotamuses of James Marshall's popular books.
Other animated shows that first aired on HBO include "The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking," featuring Astrid Lindgren's precocious, pigtailed 9-year-old; "The Country Mouse and the City Mouse Adventures," following the mystery-solving Emily and Alexander as they travel the globe in the years 1899-1910; "The Little Lulu Show," bringing to life the red-dressed, curly-haired character from Marjorie Henderson Buell's 1935 comic strip; "Babar," the lovable elephant king of the books by Jean de Brunhoff and Laurent de Brunhoff; the multicultural fairy tales of "Happily Ever After"; and the fantasy-oriented "The Neverending Story."
HBO Family also has featured "sneak previews" of specials such as "The UniverSoul Circus" and "Dear America" before they aired on the parent channel. And Rosen is fostering relationships with some of the big names of children's entertainment, such as author-illustrator Sendak.
The goal, Rosen said, is to build a brand identity and loyalty -- among viewers and Hollywood players -- similar to the cachet enjoyed by HBO.
So, Rosen vows, even though some of the programs have marketing potential, they will remain true to her educational-entertainment background.
So, no "Power Rangers"?
"No," Rosen said, "we'll never put that kind of commercial product on the network."
CAPTION: Insects find plenty of adventure in "Anthony Ant," a preschooler show on the re-launched HBO Family.
CAPTION: Doris the Door swings in "A Little Curious."
CAPTION: Nathan Lane, Andrea Martin voice "George and Martha."
CAPTION: Paddington Bear has found a home on HBO Family.