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From Sesame Street to "Planet 429"

"Sesame Street" has sought for years to help children from all backgrounds develop basic reading skills. Can "Planet 429" help them read and comprehend?

WTTW National Productions, a Chicago-based company, has begun production of a TV show to be titled "Mission to Planet 429," which, like Sesame Street and other educational-themed programs, will seek to help nurture students' reading skills as it entertains them.

"Planet 429" is expected to hit the air on PBS about a year from now, targeting 6- to 9-year-olds. The show seems likely to receive an added dose of publicity because of one of the creative minds behind it, in particular: film writer, director, and cinematographer Roman Coppola.

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One of the main goals of the program is to use video and multimedia presentations to help students conquer a crucial reading barrier—learning how to comprehend what they read, a challenge students typically confront around 4th grade, said Reese Marcusson, the executive vice-president of WTTW. The show will also be linked with a Web site that seeks to build students' skills in reading informational text in a number of ways, he added.

The show is supported in part by a Ready to Learn grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Innovation and Improvement. "Planet 429" is one of four WTTW programs receiving funding through a 5-year grant worth $47.5 million, Marcusson said. About 30 percent of that funding is going toward research and evaluation of each of the programs' ability to boost students' reading ability, he added. One of those programs, which is already running on PBS stations, is "WordWorld," aims to help 3- to 5-year-olds with reading.

The grant's emphasis on research "gives us the opportunity to test some things and show that it works," Marcusson explained.

Roman Coppola, as many film buffs know, is the son of acclaimed Hollywood director Francis Ford Coppola ("The Godfather," "Apocolypse Now," and my personal favorite, "The Conversation") and the brother of director Sofia Coppola ("Lost in Translation"). Roman Coppola (I've attached a photo) has an extensive resume of his own, having worked in several areas of film making, from writing and directing to sound recording.

The plot of "Mission to Planet 429" is a fantasy that follows the adventures of two intergalactic explorers who get dropped off on earth, a planet about which they have no basic understanding, Marcusson explained. This leads to adventures and comic misunderstandings. The show will be connected to an interactive Web site and multimedia features.

As with other education-themed shows produced by WTTW, the creators of "Planet 429" will develop curriculum for the program, which will include storyboards and animation. The goal is for "Planet 429" to air on PBS and on other stations internationally, Marcusson said. The costs of putting the show together that are not covered by the grant will be supported through private fund-raising, he said.

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