MANILA, Philippines -- Pong Pagong and Kiko Matsing, stars of Batibot, the popular Philippine version of Sesame Street, are fast becoming an endangered species.
A shoestring budget and lack of government support are threatening to take off the air what amounts to the only pre-school education available for millions of impoverished Filipino youngsters.
Children and adults alike are banding together to keep Batibot, which is in its sixth season, on the air.
Mark Anthony de Guia, 8, wrote to a Manila newspaper: 'Please help save Batibot. I and my sister, Ana Marie, have learned many things from this program.'
Batibot features Pong Pagong, a turtle, and Kiko Matsing, a monkey. Pagong is the Filipino word for turtle and matsing is monkey in the Tagalog dialect, which the government is promoting as a national language.
Pong and Kiko play essentially the same roles as Kermit the Frog and Big Bird on Sesame Street.
Batibot, which means 'small but vigorous' in Tagalog, is an adaptation of the much-loved American show. In fact, it was called Sesame Street at the outset and was co-produced with Children's Television Workshop with the backing of former Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos.
Government support for Batibot ended in 1984 after the economy collapsed following the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino.
The co-production arrangement was canceled and the Philippine Children's Television Foundation has been forced to shoulder production costs of about $5,000 per month.
Lydia Brown, Batibot's executive producer, said the government has no pre-school education program and only the children of affluent families can afford to attend exclusive kindergartens.
Batibot is the kindergarten of the poor and many children pack the homes of lucky television owners in remote barrios to watch Pong and Kiko.
'Our primary mission is to use television in a responsible way in order to produce programs for the benefit of Filipino children,' said Brown, who is also head of the independent Philippine Children's Television Foundation.
The names of the two key characters of Batibot are a clue to the philosophy behind the program: to develop a sense of national identity among children and to use the Tagalog dialect to further mass education.
In a sense, Batibot initiated a move among Filipino educators to use Tagalog, one of many dialects in the island nation, as a medium of instruction in the former American colony, where English is the official language.
The one-hour program is shown every weekday on two television channels. Its skits are replete with Philippine scenes and symbols, local fables, folktales and legends that Philippine toddlers can easily identify with.
Television ratings surveys show Batibot now is more popular than Sesame Street, which has been shown in Manila since 1970.
Brown said while Sesame Street concentrates on cognitive skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic, Batibot tackled other aspects of the child, especially being Filipino.
For example, it teaches children to prefer local fruits over imported chocolates and ice cream.
Except for the colorful costumes of Pong and Kiko, which were made in New York, the other Batibot puppets are locally crafted and lack the sophistication of Kermit, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch and other Sesame Street characters.
Even the costumes of Pong and Kiko are worn out,but Brown said repairs to the stars' wardrobes would cost a prohibitive $20,000.
She said the show's budget this season was $350,000, but less than half that amount had been pledged. Brown said she hoped that 60 percent of the budget would come from advertisers and the rest from an aggressive campaign to sell Batibot souvenirs.
Negotiations also are under way for a co-production with Indonesia, she said, and Japan recently donated $300,000 worth of equipment for the program. Canada and Australia have donated books.