Kids Show Ignites Merchandise Ideas
Winnipeg Thriller Expanding

Winnipeg Free Press

Visions of plastic lunch boxes, canvas backpacks, and fluffly flannel pyjamas are dancing in the heads of the producers of Shirley Holmes.

As the Winnipeg-made children's TV series began shooting its third season yesterday, many of those involved were being spurred on by the profit potential beyond the actual programming that gets sold to networks around the world.

"The new landscape we're standing on now includes merchandising, in a way that it didn't when we were only airing in Canada," said series producer Kim Todd, a vice-president with Winnipeg's Credo Entertainment Corp.

"Obviously, we've been in touch with toy and merchandising comanies all along, but we were all waiting to see which way the show went."

Now, with a new season of 13 episodes quarenteed, bringing the total to 39, and confirmed sales to the BBC in the United Kingdon and the new Fox Family Channel in the United States, the youthful sleuthing series set in the fictional town of Reddington could evolve into a tidy little profit center.

HarperCollins in England has launched a series of children's books, based on the series' first season, to coincide with the show's recent BBC launch.

Shirley Holmes will premiere in the United States on Aug. 15, the first day of the new Fox children's channel. The U.S. book rights have been sold to Bantam/Doubleday.

"They are doing the American thing and letting the series run for a year before launching the books."

Todd also is crossing her fingers regarding the lucrative syndication market.

"It's double with 39 episodes, but we'd be happier with 52."

The YTV executive who will decide whether to renew Shirley Holmes says Todd's optimism is not unrealistic.

"There is every likelihood of a fourth season," said YTV's Peter Moss, the Canadian youth channel's vice-president of production and programming.

"Each of our programs has a buzz about it. But this is one of the shows that has taken off."

The new episodes will begin airing on YTV in September, bumped up from the winter start date given the first two seasons.

Moss says he will turn thumbs-up or down on a fourth season in December or January, after seeing if audience figures hold firm.

According to the most recent ratings, Shirley Holmes ranks 27th on YTV's schedule, sixth highest among its Canadian co-productions

Successful syndication and merchandising, he says, hang on giving broudcasters enough episodes to run "stripped" into a regular time slot five days a week, the way it's done with The Simpsons or Full House.

That usually means a number of shows divisble by five - 40 shows for an eight-week cycle, or better yet, 65 shows for a 13-week run.

"Every time you turn on the TV at, say, 5 p.m., you're advertising your merchandise."

In the short term, though, Todd and Credo's co-production partners at Forefront Entertainment in Vancouver are concentrating on the task at hand - getting the new episodes in the can during the next 12 weeks.

"Creatively, we're ready to go," said Todd, whose many credits include the Atlantis-produced children's series Ramona and the Credo TV movie, The Diviners.

Stars Meredith Henderson and John White (who signed autographs at the Red River Ex on Saturday) are back for another year of solving mysteries like their legendary British counterparts, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

"The kids are a little older, they're more self-aware and they're stepping out into the world," says Todd.

In the first episode, The Case of the Galloping Ghost, Shirley gets her first crush on a boy. Bill Switzer, the Eerie, Indiana series star, does a guest turn as a hired hand on a dude ranch. Birds Hill Park is the site of this week's shoot.

For Todd, the pleasure of an ongoing series is the chance to develop scripts that deepen the characters and their motivation.

"We're able to stretch in ways that we couldn't if we were still struggling with who the character is and what are their basic traits."

For example, Stink (Brendan Fletcher), the practicle joker, tries his hand at stand-up comedy. The alien-obsessed kid Bart (Blair Slater) joins the Seach For Extraterrestrial Intelligence organization SETI. (Slater, by the way, plays the young Jim Carrey in the movie hit The Truman Show)

Pop culture fan Alicia (Annick Obonsawin) gets a job in the new cafe-juice bar. Molly (Sarah Ezer), the MOriarty character, will be nastier and more in conflict with Shirley.

"We're taking the show's edges and sharpening them up," Todd says.

The 13 episodes are budgeted at $6.4 million, the equivalent of two movie-for-TV movies. The production employs about 65 crew members.

Todd oversees the scripts with her executive story editors, Elizabeth Stuart of Vancouver and Therese Beaupre of Toronto.

Seven of this year's episodes are being directed by Winnipegers: two each by Norma Bailey, Richard O'Brien-Moran and Elise Swerhone. Todd herself is directing the first.

Bailey, who directed the Credo TV movies Nights Below Station Street and For Those Who Hunt The Wounded Down, has been hired as a series producer.

"The industry always said it needed a series if everyone's craft was going to get honed," Bailey said.

"Everyone's clicking. It's boom, boom, boom."