They’re making a mark

Five months ago they launched a little public access show in Newton, teaching kids to draw. How did it get picked up across the country?

Designer/animator Robert Palmer Jr. (left) and illustrator Mark Marderosian have seen their “Drawing With Mark’’ show connect with local cable programmers in many towns and cities. Designer/animator Robert Palmer Jr. (left) and illustrator Mark Marderosian have seen their “Drawing With Mark’’ show connect with local cable programmers in many towns and cities. (Michele Mcdonald for The Boston Globe)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / June 19, 2010

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NEWTON — Mark Marderosian and Robert Palmer Jr. were tickled when the operators of Newton’s public access cable channel agreed to air “Drawing With Mark,’’ a simple, old-fashioned TV show they created that teaches kids how to draw.

They never imagined — even as they worked vigorously to promote the show — that interest would snowball so quickly that as of today, less than five months after the first episode, “Drawing With Mark’’ has been picked up by 105 cable-access channels that serve around 150 cities and towns in 25 states, including Florida, Texas, California, New Jersey, and Michigan.

Providing their program free of charge to stations that are hungry for children’s programming, they have created their own ad-hoc version of a national syndication network. The unusual strategy means that at a time when the proliferation of channels has made it harder for TV programs to build an audience, their quiet little show is garnering prime space on many cable systems, including the slot most coveted by producers of children’s programs: Saturday morning.

“This national network is not one we expected, and certainly didn’t expect so quickly,’’ Marderosian said this week. “The stations are calling us now, asking ‘When is the next episode?’ ’’

The rapid success of “Drawing With Mark’’ also opens a revealing window onto the world of public access television, and underscores how blurry the lines between commercial and noncommercial have become in a medium launched four decades ago as a forum for free speech.

In 1972, the Federal Communications Commission mandated that cable operators give citizens free access to at least one channel in each community to increase participation in political and civic life. These channels are not subject to regulation by the FCC or cable providers; the power to approve programming rests with the local entities that run the channels. Advertising is prohibited on the channels, though shows can be sponsored by local businesses.

Marderosian, a veteran illustrator, and Palmer, a designer and animator, run a small children’s media company, Big City Publishing, which sells storybooks, coloring books, flash cards, and puzzles. The products are built around the “Angels From the Attic,’’ which are winged, round-faced bunnies and kittens created by Marderosian.

The “Angels’’ are prominently featured in “Drawing With Mark,’’ which is hosted by Marderosian. There is no advertising on the show, and Marderosian does not urge viewers to buy anything, but the address for the company website is shown at the end of each episode.

Marderosian maintains that the TV show was not created as a marketing tool but as a way to communicate a message to kids about the importance of drawing, dreaming, and creativity. “We are very careful. There is no specific call to buy in the show,’’ he said. “We want to provide [children] with programming that is wholesome.’’ He noted that the website does not contain products for sale but rather drawings that youngsters can download and color in.

Jacqui Fishman, who handles marketing for Big City Publishing, conceded that “in many ways [the TV show] probably is a good marketing tool for us’’ because it gives the company’s main characters wide visibility. But, she said, “the main drive behind the program is teaching kids how to draw.’’

Laura R. Linder, author of “Public Access Television: America’s Electronic Soapbox,’’ said programs like “Drawing With Mark’’ underscore the “gray area’’ that has opened up in public access television. “What if Disney said, ‘We’re going to start a movement and get people to sponsor Disney programs on public access stations?’ It’s something to sort of think about,’’ she said. “On the other hand, it’s teaching people how to draw. How cool is that? As long as they’re only putting up the website at the end, that doesn’t seem so bad to me.’’

Robert Carbone, executive director of North Reading Cable Access and Media, said he has refused to allow certain shows on the air because they were clearly ads masquerading as programs, but he accepted “Drawing With Mark’’ because it does not fit in that category. “I’m sure the money he makes helps pay for his own program, but as long as its not an in-your-face kind of ad, that’s fine,’’ Carbone said.

Maria Sheehan, executive director of Waltham Community Access Corporation, agrees. “We have real estate agents that do shows about real estate, mechanics that do shows about cars,’’ she said. “It’s not about his company. I don’t see a problem with it.’’ As an on-air host, said Sheehan, Marderosian is a breath of fresh air. “So many shows now are in your face, that loud, angry, constantly-being-stimulated thing,’’ she said. “This is a very sweet and kind and gentle show.’’

Indeed, the 55-year-old Marderosian is an unpolished but friendly TV presence. During his half-hour show, aimed at children from 5 to 12, he takes viewers through the drawing process step by step. “All you need is some paper, crayon or pencil, and your imagination,’’ he says in one episode. “Come on, let’s draw!’’

Using a pencil on a large white sheet of paper, he then proceeds to show how an airplane and a sailing vessel can be drawn by using basic shapes: a circle, a square, a triangle. After the pencil drawing is complete, he inks it in. “If you want, you can add even more detail,’’ Marderosian tells viewers. “It’s your world.’’

The seeds for “Drawing With Mark’’ were planted last year, when Marderosian and Palmer took lessons at NewTV, the public access station in Newton. Over the winter, with Palmer directing, they filmed the first “Drawing With Mark’’ at NewTV. A staffer suggested that other communities might be interested in airing the show, so Marderosian and Palmer started e-mailing station directors.

Waltham immediately agreed to air “Drawing With Mark.’’ Next came Needham, Shrewsbury, and Dedham. They started branching out beyond state borders, and were startled by the eager reception they got.

“I’m always looking for programming to put on the channel, because we don’t have too many people producing videos in our area,’’ said John Lentz, the program director for the public access channel in Muskego, Wis., who picked up the show. “Plus, I’m always looking for kids’ shows.’’

The retro vibe of “Drawing With Mark’’ had a strong appeal for Paula Mooney, executive vice president of marketing at Hometowne Television, which serves 17 communities in New Jersey. “It made me think about when I was kid, you know, a ‘Mister Rogers’ feeling,’’ Mooney said. “Young kids today are so inundated with complicated things in their life; everything has to have a battery. I thought, ‘What a sweet show.’ ’’

Although Marderosian was a full-time freelancer for Disney for 15 years, creating illustrations that were used in coloring books, picture books, and theme-park merchandise, he said that because he wants to maintain creative control, he has no desire for “Drawing With Mark’’ to be bought by Disney or Nickelodeon or PBS or any other big media entity.

“I’m thrilled that these station managers and viewers are sharing this vision with us,’’ he says. “And the vision is not for sale.’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at