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‘Wilbur’ Creators Discover Difficulties of Finding the Right Channel

Like a rock idol whipping a crowd into frenzy, “Wilbur,” the star of his own show which debuted this spring on the Discovery Kids Channel and The Learning Channel, gyrates when he breaks into song.

But the playful calf and his barnyard buddies, Dasha, a duck with the inquisitive nature of a 4-year-old; Ray, a somewhat smart-alecky rooster; and a sweet little 2-year-old lamb named Libby, the creation of three San Diego moms, are all business.

As puppets engaged in “moovelous” G-rated adventures and dilemmas that lead them to books for solutions, their job is to entice preschoolers into wanting to learn to read by setting an example.

They’re not actually trying to teach reading. Rather, their focus, guided by Wilbur as he points at words on the printed page with his hoof, turns the pages and displays book covers, is to engender interest in reading.

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It’s A Hit

While the Discovery Channel does not release ratings information, the show seems to be a hit, said Amy Sprecher, who heads the Amy Sprecher Co., a New York City-based producer, which brought Wilbur to the network.

“The kids love it,” Sprecher said, noting that the response from children, their parents and caregivers on the network’s Web site has been very positive.

“We are such believers,” she said. “We think it’s going to be a huge, huge success and fabulous for kids.”

Albertsons, one of the nation’s largest grocery chains which has partnered with the Discovery Kids Channel on the “Good-to-Grow” marketing campaign, aimed at encouraging children to eat more fruits and vegetables, is also a believer. The network’s Ready Set Learn! preschool programming block of characters, including “Wilbur,” will be highlighted on displays, in-store broadcasts, and a recipe and activity booklet at more than 1,000 of its stores through Aug. 28.

“Wilbur” has definitely made it to the big-time, but his rise to fame, if not fortune, has a few parallels with that of your average music icon.

First of all, Kim Anton, Tracey Hornbuckle and Jill Luedtke , the “Wilber moms” as they’re known by the show’s producers , who created him and his pals 10 years ago to fill a niche in the market for a video that enhances early literacy skills, were uncompromising when it came to retaining creative license.


Critical Acclaim

While their “Wilbur the Calf” videos received critical acclaim early on, including “Parent’s Choice” and Oppenheim awards, as well as Parenting Magazine’s Video Magic Award, the trio initially distributed and marketed them out of their garages, Anton said.

After extensive efforts to pitch the videos to distributors, several made offers. But all wanted the rights to television production, along with creative control, which the women were not willing to give up.

“We knew we had chosen the harder road, but we had a vision for ‘Wilbur,’ and we wanted to make sure our series was developed with our focus on early literacy,” she said.

Going it on their own, rather than using distributors as intermediaries to pitch their product to broadcasters, the women who’d formed EKA Productions, raised enough funding to hire Cuppa Coffee Studios Inc., a Canadian production company, to create what’s called a “television bible” or storyboard, which is essential in pitching a TV series to broadcasters.

A proposal for a PBS grant, which took a year in the making, “almost did us in,” Luedtke said. But it was denied.

They were disappointed, but undaunted. “We picked ourselves up, found two fabulous partners, Cathy Chilco of Chilco Productions and Clint Eland of Mercury Filmworks (both of Canada) and began again in earnest to find the right home for ‘Wilbur,’ ” Hornbuckle said.

In 2004, with the help of Chilco Productions and Mercury Filmworks, the series was sold to Discovery Communications, and the women became co-producers.

A year later, following legal negotiations and raising money, Discovery Communications and the Canadian Broadcast Channel produced 26 half-hour episodes with a budget of about $6 million. “Wilbur” launched on April 23.

“The three of us have always shared the same passion and belief that Wilbur has the potential to make a difference in a child’s literacy development and to ultimately be successful worldwide,” Anton said.

Between 1997 and 2000, 25,000 videos were sold generating about $125,000 in revenue. The cost of production was $75,000 and the remaining $50,000 was put back into the business, Anton said.

An additional $250,000 was raised to develop “Wilbur” into a TV series. To date, the partners’ earnings have been enough to pay their legal bills and keep EKA Productions afloat, but they hope for more, she added.

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