Tuned In: The Hub Network offers programs for younger children

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Margaret Loesch knows a thing or two about children's television and family programming. She launched Fox Kids Network, created Hallmark Channel and has held leadership roles at Hanna-Barbera Productions, Marvel Productions and the Jim Henson Group. She also was executive producer of "R.L. Stine's The Haunting Hour: Don't Think About It," which filmed in Western Pennsylvania in late 2006.

Ms. Loesch embarks on another start-up when Discovery Kids network becomes The Hub, a joint venture between Discovery Networks and Hasbro Toys that launches at 10 this morning in 60 million homes (see channel conversion chart on page 3 for channel numbers).

The network targets viewers ages 6-12 and will strive to offer entertainment for kids rather than the tween fare found on rivals Disney Channel and Nickelodeon.

"They've got some great programs for kids, but more and more they're aging their programming for teens and tweens," Ms. Loesch said after an August press conference. "Girls and boys dating, crushes and that sort of thing, and moms and dads are saying, 'No, we want more of the "SpongeBob"-type shows' for viewers in the 6-9 and 6-11 age group."

Although she wouldn't name shows on rival networks that concern her -- she's a fan of Nickelodeon's "SpongeBob SquarePants" and Disney's "Phineas & Ferb" -- it's clear that she won't be putting a "Hannah Montana"-type program on The Hub anytime soon.

"I've got some concerns about the kids space. The content pushes the limits in my opinion in some cases," Ms. Loesch said. "There are some great shows on my competition, but I also see an opportunity to reintroduce just pure fun, engaging shows that aren't salacious, that aren't so edgy. There's an attitude there I see emerging that's cynical."

And she worries about when the stars of kids shows begin leading tabloid lives.

"Kids look up to those figures, so there is a responsibility, and it's an issue," she said. And what happens if any stars of Hub series go down a less wholesome path? "I don't know the answer to that question, but we're going to work on it. It's one thing to be in the world of music and rock and dance, but [we're in] scripted programming where it's action and drama. But we'll see. You might be saying to me in a couple of years, 'Listen, that kid you put in ...' "

The Hub launches with the new animated series "The Twisted Whiskers Show" (pets in absurd situations), "Dennis and Gnasher" (a boy and his pet have adventures), and "Cosmic Quantum Ray" (boy superhero). In addition, toy-inspired series "Pound Puppies," "My Little Pony" and "Strawberry Shortcake" will be on the schedule. Ms. Loesch said the network is not just a 24/7 sales tool for Hasbro toys.

"Yes, some of our programs are based on beloved brands, some of which are toys, but you could say that across the board. 'SpongeBob' has toys," she said. "We have some original shows that have nothing to do with toys. Our job is not to sell toys. Our job is to have a vibrant network that has diverse programming, and that's what we're presenting."

In addition to animated series, The Hub will feature live-action shows, including acquisitions ("The Wonder Years," "Doogie Howser, M.D.") and new programs.

A game show, "Family Game Night," debuts at 7 tonight and features families competing in a series of challenges inspired by classic board games, including, of course, some made by Hasbro.

"There is no more toy-connected product on our network than any of the other kids networks," she emphasized. "In a week's worth of 168 hours of television programming, 20-25 percent may reflect toy products, and the rest does not."

Ms. Loesch said she went to Hasbro with the idea for "Family Game Night."

"I've been completely committed to the concept of bringing families together to watch fun programs because there's so little of it on television," she said. "I hear this constantly from parents. If we can promote the idea of turning off the TV and playing games, then I've provided a service."

A live-action mystery-solving series based on the Hasbro game "Clue" will debut next year. A series based on the "Haunting Hour" movie is currently in production in Canada and will air later this year.

"We loved working in Pittsburgh, and believe me, [shooting the series there] was contemplated," she said. But when a Canadian production company stepped up to foot a portion of the series cost, production headed north of the border. "My dad is from Meadville, and I have cousins there and in Pittsburgh. I love that neck of the woods. It means a lot to me."

Ms. Loesch said The Hub will develop a strategy about what "junk food ads we take. We're being very careful, and we are turning down a lot of advertisers in the sugar category." And the network will limit its advertising during preschool blocks of programming to two minutes of national ads per hour.

She knows some viewers may question the need for another kids network, but Ms. Loesch says: "There are three networks for kids and 60-odd networks for grown-ups. Why can't kids have that?"

Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published October 10, 2010 4:00 AM


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