Do you have a ‘Margaret’s rules’ of kids TV?
The rules are very basic. Have I seen it before? Is the story-telling something that captures my attention? There are lots of things that are different but they’re not very good. They’re weird, inappropriate or unimaginative. They’re so different that they don’t appeal to kids because they overlook the basics. Kids need good stories, interesting characters, exciting action and unpredictability.
I read a Goosebumps book one night, and the next day I went after the rights to make a firm commitment for the series because it appealed to everything that I liked as a kid-and still like. It was different from everything else currently on television and when I recognized that, I went after it with a vengeance.
The stakes are so high today in launching a new show and merchandising tie-ins are a necessity. Has the alliance between creative and marketing helped or hurt TV?
If the alliance between creative and marketing is done so as to simply sell a product, then it usually hurts the show. I have always felt that when you are developing a property, it must first work as a show. There’s nothing wrong with selling a toy, but that’s not the way to make a great show. A lot of the shows I’ve seen where the primary goal was to market a product were missing a heart and soul. But if you start by setting up the heart and soul, then you will be successful in marketing it.
What are some of the enduring lessons you have learned about trying to reach kids?
I am very fortunate in that I have a very diversified background. I had the experience of making and selling the shows and the experience of buying shows and picking a schedule-both are quite different experiences. When you pick the shows, you think about your overall schedule and the audience. When you make the shows, many people just think about how to sell to the buyer.
In the 12 years that I spent on the producing side, I learned to not just ask what the buyer wants, but also what do the kids want. Why would a child like this? I find that a lot of people who create product don’t always think of their audience, but the successful people do. People like J’e Barbera, Bill Hanna, Jim Henson and Peo, who created The Smurfs, had an advantage over the normal producer. These gentlemen knew how to sell to the networks, but they also knew to a huge extent what the audience wanted.
One of the things that I learned from my joint experience as a network executive and a producer was to find out what the audience finds exciting early on. I find that some people in the entertainment business are often remarkably insulated from the consumers, from the people who view their product. I’m not good enough to be able to do that. I guess if you’re a creative genius, it d’esn’t matter what the audience thinks. But I’m not a creative genius, so I’ve spent a lifetime trying to observe what our audience likes and why and how they respond to certain things. And I’m very blessed in that everything I like, a 10-year-old likes. I’m not sure what that means.
When you look at the up-and-comers in your business, what do you see that impresses you?
One of the things that is impressing me is the unfettered creativity out there, and what I mean by that is people are experimenting with form as well as substance. People (and I think the industry at large) are willing to try things that are a little different. There is an opportunity for a lot of up-and-coming talent who may not have previously thought of themselves as fine artists, but they have a particular style that’s entertaining. So, in that regard, I think that is a really positive trend and I’m seeing a lot of terrific talent emerging. Also, now that there is more product needed, there is a greater chance for talent to be nurtured, and more of a chance for offbeat ideas.
On the flip side of that, there is a certain amount of artistry and discipline that is required in filmmaking, and sometimes I get discouraged by people who think that it’s easier than it is and who take shortcuts rather than learn about the craft.
And what do you see that you think is not being done well?
In animation, there are some poorly drawn shows. There seems to be a lack of art, but the only thing that I have seen that really worries me is some of the content. A lot of the humor tends to be the gross joke, the risqué joke, the double entendre. To me, that’s an easy way out. The best stand-up comics don’t resort to that. The same is true of programming. Some of the best programming relies on imaginativeness and plain hard work rather than shock value.
I’m also a big believer in the appropriateness of language in kids television. I’m actually a big believer in the appropriateness of language in all television. You know that old adage that sticks and stones can break bones, but words can never hurt you? I don’t believe that. I was raised to believe it, but I no longer think that is the case.
I think words can be very hurtful. I think that respect and tolerance are conveyed through words. So I don’t like inappropriate language. I don’t like our shows to have language I consider inappropriate. I’m a great believer in presenting dialogue in a smart and clever fashion, and I try to consider that when we buy shows.
Fox Children’s Network and other leading broadcasters are poised to become truly global companies. As this increases, what changes do you expect to see on the programming side?
It’s hard to predict what the changes will be, but I think you will see a growing sophistication or awareness of the types of children’s entertainment around the world. As we become more aware of that, you will see it reflected back on American television, just as over the years, American television has been dominant around the world. We will find ways to present those ideas-not just borrow a format and create an American version, but actually take that foreign product and present it in a new way that makes sense to kids.
Do you think other markets will accept an American network?
We are not trying to present ourselves as an American network. We’re trying to position ourselves as an international network, and I think the world is ready for an international network.
There is an expression you don’t hear very much anymore, but it was very prevalent when I was growing up: the ugly American. There was a very strong sentiment outside the country that America would come in with an arrogance, a loftiness and a condescending attitude and discount other countries and their culture with an attitude that everything American is good and great, and if it’s not American, then it’s not good.
My father was in the Air Force, and as a young child, I lived in Europe. And I remember the self-consciousness and the sensitivity that we had when we lived outside of this country. So I grew up in a foreign environment and was taught by my parents to respect and appreciate differences. And I want very much for our channels to try to incorporate that.
Clearly, in the early stages as we are building our channels, there will be more American product on those channels than not. But as we mature, there will be more and more international product. And I think that the kids themselves will be the beneficiaries.
What has been your biggest career disappointment?
I don’t normally think in terms of disappointment. I’m the kind of person who puts things behind me and moves on. But in the course of the six years since we started this network, I do have one disappointment that is greater than any of the other difficulties we’ve faced, and that is losing Animaniacs. I took it very personally, which is something that in business you try not to do. There was a period when I was, quite frankly, very bitter.
When we had been on the air for about a year, we worked out a deal with Warner Bros. in which they would supply us with a certain amount of programming. Part of the deal included a show created by Steven Spielberg. When we were pitched ideas, the show that we all agreed to develop was Animaniacs, so we had been a part of it from the ground up. At the time we made the Warner Bros. deal, we hadn’t anticipated a hit like Power Rangers, and when it came time to renew our rights to Animaniacs, I didn’t have a Monday through Friday time period for it. I couldn’t very well pull Power Rangers, the number one show for kids in America. So I tried to work out an arrangement with Warner Bros. We offered to keep Animaniacs and put it on Saturday morning for an hour for one year and the following year, when other commitments were out of the way, put it back Monday through Friday. Much to my dismay and disappointment, Warner Bros. chose not to accept the alternative offer.