Looking for the next Barney?

Check out "The Puzzle Factory" -- the first national daily preschool series created for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting since "Sesame Street" in the 1960s. Wall Street is betting that's where he'll be found.

Only this time he could be in the shape of a puppet named Julie Woo, Kiki Flores, Max Olafsen, Leon Devon, Jazzy Silver or Skye Blazing Star.

Co-produced for public television by Lancit Media Productions Ltd. (which does PBS's "Reading Rainbow") and KCET in Los Angeles, the half-hour "Puzzle Factory" is scheduled to air in January 1995. After Lancit went public two years ago and was selected to produce the show, its stock appreciated from $1.75 a share in June 1991 to $13 today. "It's like having the opportunity to invest in Jim Henson's organization two years before 'Sesame Street' first appeared," said one analyst.

"The timing was right," said Cecily Truett, CEO of Lancit, citing the 1990 Children's Television Act, which mandated more quality programming for children.

Indeed, the marketing success of other public television characters has led to a deal in which KCET and Lancit will split the ancillary income 50-50.

The show, said Truett, will try to teach preschoolers "how to get along in a multicultural world." The varied characters come together in "The Puzzle Factory" each day to tell a half-hour narrative. There they meet four Piece Police and a dog and cat who are more than they appear to be.

"We think of it as human being lessons," said Truett.

CPB selected the series from 35 proposals and funded it to the tune of $4.5 million, the largest single grant ever awarded a children's show. The program has an additional $3.5 million from Southern California Edison Co. and Rebuild L.A., a private volunteer organization.

But Truett and her husband, Laurence A. Lancit, president of Lancit Media, knew they would need more money -- their total budget for the first season of 65 episodes is $14.2 million. So in addition to seeking private support, they decided licensing was the way to go.

"We think these puppets are going to be major celebrities," she said.