That time when '90s kids were hooked on Treehouse
Anyone who has ever been in the company of pre-schoolers knows Toronto based Treehouse is the de facto destination for curious young eyes and minds.
As well as offering up a global empire of merchandise, books, health products and popular on-air and on-demand titles such as Bubble Guppies, My Big Big Friend, Mike the Knight, Franklin, Max & Ruby and the freshly minted Trucktown, Treehouse also has a colourful lineage as witnessed by the '90s kids who grew up with the channel.
Treehouse launched as a 24-hour TV network in the Fall of 1997, but actually began life as a programming block on Canada's mighty youth network YTV in the early 1990s.
After successfully introducing a cadre of "PJs" (Program Jockeys, including Phresh Phil, Aashna, and Jazzy Jan) to host the afterschool block of programming - "The Zone", still going strong today - YTV's attention soon turned to the creation of a commercial free, 40-hour per week morning/early afternoon block for pre-schoolers, parents and teachers, and so "The Treehouse" was built.
Dale Taylor, VP of Programming and Production for YTV from 1989 to 1997 coined the name and recalls its basic tenet was "a destination and safe haven for kids and their growing minds. 'The Treehouse' sounded nice, both inspirational and aspirational, elevating in both thought and spirit. Some wanted to call it 'The Sandbox', but thankfully I got my way!"
A new crop of PJs were enlisted, including the unforgettable PJ Katie, whose ability to play act with dolls and action figures enraptured viewers both young and old. She was eventually given her own series, PJ Katie's Farm, which unsurprisingly developed a mass cult following amongst toddlers and University students across Canada.
What's remarkable about looking back at some of the PJ material on YTV's original '90s Treehouse block was how offbeat and frankly bonkers it all was. In addition to PJ Katie's fits of creative freestyle, the hosts often welcomed diverse guests such as Mordecai Richler to read to their mesmerized audience.
Alongside the PJs were their co-hosts the Fuzzpaws, stuffed animal puppets who eventually also got their own show as well as plush dolls, serving as the Treehouse brand's first foray into merchandising.
During the mid-1990s, there was intense competition to launch a dedicated preschool TV network and power players such as the CBC, TVOntario, the NFB and even Global were all in the running.
When Treehouse TV was eventually granted its license, the YTV block was radically retooled (PJ's out; dolls and toys in) and the network began to form into an eclectic pick'n'mix of Canadian and international kids shows broken up by the Treetownies - Tansy (portrayed by Kathleen LeRoux), Rosabelle (portrayed by Denise Shaw) and the Treetown toys.
Susan Ross, former VP and General Manager of Children's Television for Corus Entertainment explains "the idea of a Treehouse was a springboard to enable us to create a magical place - Treetown where the various characters representing the network lived (Tansy, Rosabelle, Cush, Osbert, Stu and others)."
In the early days of Treehouse TV, series such as Barney and Blues Clues reigned supreme, but the network also gave a home to new and old Canadian shows, such as the retro Toronto based favourite Today's Special, as well as future classics like Ants In Your Pants and Little Bear.
When asked if there was a moment she knew Treehouse had really made an impact, Ross remembers "when we started a Treehouse touring show and the crowds at a location out east were so huge that they had to call in crowd control and security reinforcements.
We knew then we had really connected with children and their parents!" Of course, nowadays Treehouse is the undisputed Shangri-La for all such content, whether it's conventional broadcast, online or mobile.
Jamie Piekarz, current Director of Content for Treehouse, YTV and Nick Canada, feels that Treehouse is a trusted televisual companion for kids thanks to its "incredibly crafted shows which enchant pre-schoolers' cognitive capabilities, foster imagination, wonder, and artistic appreciation".
With a current line-up that includes Dora and Friends, Dinopaws, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Zack & Quack and This is Scarlett and Isiah, it's little wonder parents and toddlers are so besotted with the channel and its digital offshoots.
Canada has always been at the forefront of quality programming for kids, with Toronto in particular the epicentre of a very busy industry.
Through animation, live-action and puppetry, Toronto producers continue to create exemplary content in a variety of forms which will hopefully stay with today's young audience in the same way the likes of Polka Dot Door, Mr. Dress-Up, Bookmice, Big Comfy Couch and Fraggle Rock still resonate with their parents.
Special thanks to Jamie Piekarz, Dale Taylor, and Susan Ross
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