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Ms. Frizzle and Her Magic Bus To Launch Their PBS Trip This Fall

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Orlando, Fla.--With more than seven million copies in print, The Magic School Bus book series from Scholastic Inc. would seem to have created a ready audience for a television show of the same name.

The book series by Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen is about a teacher, Ms. Frizzle, who takes her students on a magically powered bus for scientific field trips into the human body, around the solar system, or back to the time of dinosaurs.

In its new incarnation, "The Magic School Bus'' will debut on the Public Broadcasting Service in September as an animated TV series with the entertainer Lily Tomlin as the voice of Ms. Frizzle. (Check local listings for times.)

Ms. Tomlin appeared here last week to plug the show at PBS's annual meeting with local-station executives.

"I was thrilled when they asked me'' to be Ms. Frizzle, she said. "I was always wondering why [the British actress] Emma Thompson got to be on shows, and I got to be on nothing.''

While growing up in Detroit, Ms. Tomlin recalled, whenever she called the local public-television station, "I would tell my brother to put classical music on in the background.''

Ms. Tomlin also performed a monologue about one of her elementary school teachers and signed copies of The Magic School Bus books handed out by Scholastic.

"The Magic School Bus'' will be PBS's first fully animated children's educational series, producers said. And Ms. Frizzle will be "public television's first science gal,'' said Cheryl Gotthelf, the executive project director for Scholastic Productions.

"Children's interest in science starts to erode in the elementary grades,'' she said. "The 'Magic School Bus' project is designed to keep children's curiosity alive.''

The National Science Foundation and Microsoft Corporation paid for the 13 weekly half-hour episodes of the show.

Expectations are high for the filmmaker Ken Burns's follow-up to "The Civil War,'' the riveting PBS historical-documentary series from three years ago.

Mr. Burns's new project is "Baseball,'' a nine-part examination of the sport that will be aired nationally on PBS in September.

Viewers who think the new documentary series will be merely an in-depth history of the national pastime probably think of baseball as just a game played by men in tight pants.

"The story of baseball is the story of America,'' Mr. Burns declared at the meeting. "This is the story of heroes, and, of course, it is the story of villains and fools.''

Lynn Novick, a co-producer, said many people were surprised when they learned that Mr. Burns would follow the highly successful Civil War series with a project about baseball. But "the game mirrors the history of the country of the last 150 years,'' she said.

Baseball can be used to tell the stories of the struggle against racial injustice, labor relations, and the rise of popular culture, the producers said.

The series, which is being underwritten by General Motors Corporation, begins Sept. 18 and runs for nine consecutive nights.

In contrast to the heavy use of still photography in "The Civil War,'' Mr. Burns has unearthed newsreels and home movies of baseball from the first half of this century.

The news broadcaster John Chancellor is the principal narrator, and actors such as John Cusack, Ossie Davis, and Gregory Peck lend their voices to the series.

Mr. Burns lauded G.M. for spending twice as much on promotion and educational outreach as it is spending to produce the series. Teachers' kits will be available in the fall.

"We see the game and our series almost as a Trojan horse, letting history into the classroom,'' Ms. Novick said.

Viewership of PBS children's shows by preschool-age viewers has more than doubled in the past three years, officials announced at the meeting here.

"Sesame Street'' has seen its audience increase by 26 percent since the 1990-91 season, while the "Reading Rainbow'' audience is up 57 percent.

But the largest growth has been for "Barney & Friends,'' whose household viewership has shot up 135 percent since the purple dinosaur premiered on PBS in 1992, officials said.

PBS and the producers have reached an agreement for the third season of "Barney & Friends'' that will allow public television to share in some of the revenues from sales of Barney videos, records, and a planned book.

There was some grumbling in the public-television world when Barney became a hit as a toy largely due to expanded exposure on PBS, but public-television stations did not benefit from that popularity.

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