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`BIG BAG' IS BIG HIT WITH THE SMALL FRY

The Cartoon Network's new weekly series "Big Bag" has something in common with those old Life cereal commercials.

Don't tell the kids it's supposed to be good for them, and they'll love it.It's from the Children's Television Workshop - the folks who bring us "Sesame Street" - and it's a winner. The only problem is that it's only available on the Cartoon Network, which is not available on most Utah cable systems.

"Big Bag" is "a new way for television to not only educate and entertain but involve our preschool audience," Bamberger said. "We see this as a breakthrough in children's programming because we encourage the kids to interact with what they're watching instead of being merely passive viewers. We break the fourth wall."

Of course, the kids aren't aware that this is an effort to educate them. They just know it's fun.

"Big Bag" is populated with two of the youngsters favorite types of television - Muppets and cartoons. It's set in a general store owned by Molly (Selena Nelson), a young woman who has just moved from the big city to rural America. She sings, dances and tells stories.

Molly's chief assistant is Chelli, a Muppet who speaks directly to the kids watching at home. He's sort of a dog with a patch for a nose and ears made out of mismatched socks - and he's going to be as popular as any of the Muppets on "Sesame Street" before long.

And Chelli's chief assistant is Bag - which is just that, a bag. Bag can't talk but makes funny noises and expressions, "sort of like a brown paper Harpo Marx," according to Chelli.

"The Bag is really a great character," Bamberger said. "In fact, it's what makes the show unique, because the kids at home each have their own Big Bag, and it's filled with household items."

That's where the real fun comes in. The kids can just grab a paper bag and throw in a few items readily available around the house - the cardboard roll from the inside of paper towels, a hat, a couple of spoons and an old sock.

With those items, they can play along with the characters on "Big Bag" - getting involved instead of just watching.

"The idea . . . is that we want this to be for every child in the world. And if they don't have a paper bag, they will imagine having a paper bag and having a paper towel roll, etc.," said Marjorie Kalins, senior vice president of programming and production for CTW.

Each installment also includes various cartoon "shorties" - six fun-but-educational animation series from the United States, Australia, Spain, the United Kingdom and Germany.

Although the Cartoon Network will air commercials before and after the show, the 55-minute episodes of "Big Bag" will be cablecast without commercial interruption.

And each episode of "Big Bag" is designed to speak to preschoolers - the show is aimed at 3- to 5-year-old kids - about what's going on in their lives. And to teach them a few lessons.

"I don't know if it's unique but it's certainly unusual in that it was designed from the outset - every aspect of it - to promote wholesome developmental experiences for kids," said Dr. William Damon, a child psychologist who is a key adviser to the show. "And the psychological aspects have been central to it all the way through. . . . It offers children a wholesome way through some of the real problems that they run into - problems with sharing, problems with friendship, problems in being tempted not to be honest and to tell fibs, problems when somebody gets mad at someone else. These things really happen."

For example, Sunday's debut episode, "Let's Work Together," teaches children about cooperation and friendship.

In episode 2, "One Little Lie," Chelli plays with a music box after being told not to, accidentally breaks it, then hides it. (If you've ever had preschoolers in your house, you know just how realistic that scenario is.)

"Big Bag" is set at about a 5-year-old level but is designed for kids from 3 up to 6 or 7. And don't be surprised if somewhat older brothers and sisters start playing along as well.

(At the Pierce house, the kids were handed the tape while I went off to write a TV column. Soon afterward, I heard the sound of spoons clinking together and went out to discover the youngsters had armed themselves with their own big bags and the various para-phernalia.)

There aren't a whole lot of shows you can feel good about your kids watching. "Big Bag" is one of them.

"Big Bag" should air Sundays at 7 a.m. on most cable systems that carry the Cartoon Network, but the time may vary according to your local cable operator.

VIDBITS: Fox just issued the sad announcement that Buck the dog has died at the age of 13. Buck - a French Briard - starred on "Married . . . With Children" for nine seasons.

There's no truth to the rumor that Buck finally got a look at the show and keeled over dead.

- ABC has announced that it will air a four-hour miniseries based on Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" during the upcoming 1996-97 season.

It will be interesting to see if this miniseries bears much re-sem-blence to the book as opposed to the classic Disney movie (and ride), which doesn't.

- Rumor du jour - CBS is reportedly interested in buying a stake in cable's Family Channel.

NBC has confirmed that it recently made a pitch to buy control of the the cable channel, but that Pat Robertson and his son, Tim - who are currently in charge - weren't willing to give up control.

- The Oscar-winning film "Schindler's List" will be broadcast this coming season by NBC. But one can't help but wonder how the film about the Holocaust will be affected by commercial interruptions.

Let's hope we don't go from the death camps straight to an ad for some feminine hygiene product.

This same problem should not arise when NBC broadcasts "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective."

- Brian Austin Green is using his hiatus from "Beverly Hills, 90210" to star in an NBC TV movie titled "Consensual Relations." It's about "a bored female college professor who has a fling with a graduate student only to discover he is a psychopath."

Gee, isn't it nice to see that Brian is able to step away from the overwrought soap/fluff that is "90210" to do a prestige project like this?

- Tori Spelling is using her hiatus from "Beverly Hills, 90210" to star in an NBC TV movie titled "Mother May I Sleep With Danger." It's about "a young woman in love with a charming psychopath who has already committed murder once."

Gee, isn't it nice to see that Tori is able to step away from the overwrought soap/fluff that is "90210" to do a prestige project like this?