DREAMER There was a time when it was awfully hard for South Korean preschoolers to see Korean TV. The big winners on the local channels for the very young demographic were English-language shows like Teletubbies and Dora the Explorer--hits, sure, but imported ones. It took Choi Jong Il, 44, creator of Pororo the Little Penguin, to change all that.
Pororo first appeared on Korean TV in 2003, and kids immediately swooned. The lead character is a 3-D penguin who lives with six animal friends on a snowy island with no adults in sight. Unlike most kids' shows, which are vague about the characters' ages, this one makes clear that Pororo is 4--putting him squarely in his viewership's developmental playgroup. And Pororo, like the kids who watch him, has a rich fantasy life. In this case, that means he dreams of flying--and wears an aviator hat and goggles to prove it.
Choi, the CEO of Iconix Entertainment, writes all the scenes himself from his office in downtown Seoul and says he got his inspiration for the show by watching his then 1-year-old daughter at play with her 4-year-old brother. "One minute they have all these differences. The next minute, everything is resolved," he says. Rather than push moral instruction on his audience, Choi gives his characters the freedom simply to play and learn.
Pororo has expanded well beyond South Korea in just four years and is now seen in 80 countries, its characters adorning everything from diapers to dishes. Still, it is the success at home that may be most surprising, since the show is not about learning ABCs--which is what Korean moms, eager to give their kids a leg up in the country's ferociously competitive education system, usually want. Choi's next big goal is getting a piece of the lucrative but highly competitive market in the U.S., where kids still do not know about Pororo and his playmates. If history is an indicator, they will soon.