A look at six shows-some brand-new, others PBS veterans-that got their start on PBS.
Kenn Viselman is president & CEO, The itsy bitsy Entertainment Company.
In early spring of `95, I left Quality Family Entertainment. Although not really sure of my career’s direction, I certainly had no intention of opening my own company. Feeling like I just needed some good old-fashioned R & R, I decided to join a friend on a trip to Europe starting at the U.K. Licensing Show.
Sometimes, things are just meant to be.
Before I made the trip, I placed a call to a woman in the U.K. who was pioneering a new vision in kids TV. I introduced myself saying, ‘Hi, my name is Kenn Viselman, and you don’t know me.’ And Anne Wood, being the gracious woman she is, said, ‘Of course, I know you, and yes, it would be a pleasure to spend some time together if you are coming to the U.K.’
Anne and I met at her offices in Stratford-upon-Avon, best known as the birthplace of Shakespeare. We talked about her newest show, Tots TV, as well as Rosie and Jim and Brum, already children’s classics in the U.K. and other places around the world.
The rapport was instantaneous. Now mind you, Anne is indeed a maverick. After many successful years in children’s publishing, she decided to pursue a new career in children’s television. Anne believed that television, if used properly, could help children learn about the world around them and be a source of inspiration for these viewers. In this way, our lives were parallel. I had also learned the power and responsibility of creating entertainment for chilren and the adults in their lives.
Through our conversations that day, I realized that she was a kindred spirit. I found myself telling Anne that I would like to take these programs to the Americas and nurture them as if they were my own. With a handshake, we agreed to a partnership built out of respect, passion and commitment.
Over the ensuing weeks, both Anne and I were ‘warned’ by ‘people with a lot more experience and knowledge than the two of us together’ that this relationship would never work. Video copies of Anne’s work ‘had more coffee stains on them than any other producer in history.’
And the challenge was born.
After my meeting with Anne, I made a clear and decisive choice to market programming and products that would nurture children’s innocence rather than exploit it. Of course, in licensing, nobody specializes. I wanted my company to be a constant reminder of the needs of these small children. And eventually, I chose The itsy bitsy Entertainment Company, and the motto, ‘To be free to learn, children must be free to dream!’
Anne and I chose Tots TV as our first introduction. In addition to being educational, imaginative and entertaining, Tots TV was also breakthrough television. It was the first time anyone had integrated a fully bilingual component into children’s television.
I wish I could say that selling Tots TV was difficult, because I know that controversy sells magazines. However, I didn’t have any of the traditional war stories that producers often complain about. To be completely honest, PBS was our broadcaster of choice and the executives in children’s programming at PBS, in particular, Alice Cahn, director of children’s programming, were more than enthusiastic about the show. Anne and I (and a couple of other members of Ragdoll) met with Alice and Catherine Lyon, associate director of children’s programming. The mutual respect at the table should have been a clear understanding of things to come. Alice and Catherine promised to watch a tape we left behind and get back to us.
A few days later, Alice called with her comments. In the first viewing, Alice admitted that she ‘didn’t get it.’ ‘It’s a nice show, a fine show, but I just don’t think . . .’ I asked her to do me a favor and look at the program again, but this time with children in the room. She did, and watched how the children were watching the show. This time, Alice saw something. By the third time she looked at the program, she was walking down the halls of PBS singing the theme song. We had a deal.
Alice, Ragdoll and I agreed that Tots TV would need some production changes for the U.S., including changing Tilly (one of the main characters) from French-speaking to Spanish-speaking, helping PBS to reach the Latino community, which up until then had been greatly underserved. We believed that Tots TV, with the Spanish component, would make a great addition to the PBS lineup and agreed to terms that would take Tots TV and PBS past the millenium.
Forty half-hour episodes and one winter holiday special of Tots TV began airing on PBS’s Ready to Learn block as an alternate show.
Tots TV airs on 282 PBS stations, with many of the stations stripping the show. Next fall, we plan to be introduced as part of PBS’s daily Ready to Learn block. Tots TV has proven to be a first step for The itsy bitsy Entertainment Company in our mission to introduce quality entertainment and products, and we look forward to a long history with PBS.
Sometimes, things are just meant to be!