Yolanda Brooks meets the latest furry friends in the ratings battle
Should the creators of Celebrity Deathmatch, Channel 4's animated series in which famous folk batter each other, be on the look-out for new fighting fodder, they could cast their eyes over pre-school television. Since the success of Teletubbies, broadcasters have been going all out to find new pre-school characters that not only attract a creditable audience, but bring in the merchandising moolah.
The Tweenies have taken centre stage in the pre-schoolers' hall of fame. But Milo, Bella, Fizz and Jake could soon be fighting off some happy-clappy competition as Roma, Hubba Hubba, Groove, Iver and Tula - also known as the Hoobs - enter a competitive TV arena.
Angus Fletcher, executive vice-president of the Jim Henson Television Group, which is producing the show, proclaims: "The Hoobs is a big ambition which will change the landscape of British children's television."
But before it can change the landscape, can the new series satisfy marketing needs? These days, children's TV is not just about learning with a bit of song and dance to jazz it up. The most successful programmes come with hit records, dolls and book tie-ins. Persuading Brian Cant or Jeremy Irons into a brightly coloured waistcoat and shoving them in front of a camera with a prop or a book is no longer enough. You need energy, pizzazz, personality - and, ideally, orange, purple, green, pink or even blue skin. Puppets are the new Pokemon. Even Bill and Ben have been resurrected for a new generation.
The under-10 market is the ultimate niche market, with broadcasters realising they can make programmes for very narrowly defined markets that run from Teletubbies through to the Butt-Ugly Martians (which starts screening on ITV in mid-February).
Channel 4, or more specifically, 4Learning, has yet to make its mark in this area, but has announced its intent by commissioning The Hoobs, which it says is the UK's biggest pre-school commission. By the end of the month, the Hoobs and their Hoobmobile will be everywhere. 4Learning has commissioned 250 25-minute programmes from puppet meisters Jim Henson Television - the people behind the seminal Sesame Street and The Muppets.
But while the Hoobs are merchandise-friendly creations, 4Learning's commissioning editor, Paul Ashton, insists the franchise will be much more than a mere moneyspinner. He says: "We admire Henson for achieving the near miracle in children's television of being entertaining and educational at the same time. There are those for whom TV is simply a vehicle for marketing to children, but The Hoobs combine tyle and innovation with clear child development thinking."
So who and what exactly are The Hoobs? Well, for starters, the Hoob posse come from the Hoobland and travel around in their Hoobmobile collecting facts about life on Earth. Each episode covers a tightly defined subject - for example: surprises, hats, bouncing, waiting, pets, owning up and teeth - and at the end of each show, the four earth-bound Hoobs beam their findings "Mork-calling-Orson" style, back to Hubba Hubba at home. The multi-coloured journey of discovery is interspersed with animations inspired by children's drawings and songs and interaction with real, live children - otherwise known as tiddlypeeps.
It's a formula that will engage children while providing education by stealth, says the show's writer and producer, Hellie Buse. "It could be very 1950s Look and Learn but we wanted to make it sing," she says. "We wanted to get an angle on it so that children will learn the stuff you want them to learn but without realising they're learning it." She continues:
"We need to enhance what teachers are doing with the creative element they sometimes don't have time for. All of that side is now the responsibility of educational programming."
So confident is 4Learning of the educational merit of The Hoobs that it is scheduled at 11am during the Learning Zone.
A TV presence is no longer enough. As well as finding tiddlypeeps (sorry, children) on its trips round the UK to film segments, the planned Hoobnet will be pulling in the new multimedia generation.
At first glance, it seems as if Henson has rehashed the Rainbow formula but got rid of Geoffrey and given the puppets more Nineties monikers. But the programme has much more panache, with its mix of studio footage, animation and outside broadcasts.
The alarmingly endearing puppets are also a lot more sophisticated than Rainbow's. Some comparisons with Sesame Street are, of course, inevitable. But with all British accents and non stage-school children in the mix, there's less chance of it looking like a watered-down copy of a great original.
As for the educational content, the early episodes demonstrate a strong learning agenda. Unlike the Butt-Ugly Martians, who are "ready to kick butt". The Hoobs boasts in its opening song: "Now the wheels are turning, we can now get learning." You may admire the content, but whether or not you'll be able to survive the hoobygalooby catchphrases in your classrooms for more than a week is another matter.
Channel 4 will broadcasting The Hoobs every weekday from Monday, January 15 at 11am