If preschool is so simple, then where is the next Barney?

Many of the most successful preschool series seem to be rather simplistic in comparison with other genres of television programs. Why then, if these series are so simple to produce, have so few succeeded? Indeed, there is more here than meets...
July 1, 1998

Many of the most successful preschool series seem to be rather simplistic in comparison with other genres of television programs. Why then, if these series are so simple to produce, have so few succeeded? Indeed, there is more here than meets the eye.

Preschoolers adore all sorts of animation, ranging from cel animation such as Arthur to model animation such as Thomas the Tank Engine. These series feature traditional stories that generally have a moral theme. Also popular are live-action series that feature puppet or costumed characters, like Hollywood Ventures’ The Big Comfy Couch. The most successful of these series have several short segments that are tied together with a story or theme that runs throughout the program.

Preschoolers respond to lovable and funny characters, and also relate well to adult figures as hosts. They enjoy seeing other real children, or characters who portray children, participate in the program just like they are doing at home. The dialogue and storylines must be aimed at, or just above, the child’s knowledge, in addition to being very silly and lots of fun. Great music is also a key ingredient, which Sony Wonder has correlated to home video sales.

If these production elements form the basic recipe for a successful preschool series, then why is it that so many of these series fail? The simple answer is that, although these programs seem to be simple, they are actually created by talented people who transform ordinary characters, stories and songs into the extraordinary from a child’s viewpoint.

Successful preschool properties are also valuable commodities because they are among the most stable in the licensing industry. With a new audience every few years, these properties can become perennials that last for decades. For manufacturers and retailers, this allows for long-term strategies and commitments that turn into long-term profits. The toy sector, in particular, has increased its commitment to preschool because the age of children that play with traditional toys continues to drop.

Our company spends a great deal of time watching hundreds of preschool series from around the world. Yet, there are only a few producers who have established themselves as leading suppliers. These rare companies are led by people who turn their emotional and professional instincts about preschoolers into concepts that become productions. These productions are crafted by teams with underrated abilities of relating to what children like, and, most importantly, who respect the tremendous intelligence of children.

Another formidable task for producers is the creative integration of content that adds to the physical and social development of children. Educational messages weaved into the entertainment are actually retained by the child, a finding that has been documented by studies such as Yale’s research on Barney. By watching episodes of a preschool series repeatedly, children develop a wide range of skills that empower them. Quite simply, children feel good because these skills increase their ability to function socially and intellectually. In addition, parents, grandparents and caregivers see how these programs influence children, which we know personally because they take the time to write to us about The Big Comfy Couch. Furthermore, the consumer’s knowledge that certain series empower children more than others has a direct positive effect on licensed product sales.

What about the parents who have to watch these series over and over again with their children? At a recent seminar our company held, local public-television station programmers told us overwhelmingly that preschool program content should be directed at the child, not the adult. Yet, whereas the content should indeed be directed at preschoolers, parents are also aware of what series they like. Talk to parents, and they will generally be quite opinionated about their favorite preschool series. Parents’ own interest in a property also has a positive impact on licensed product sales.

What a wonderful challenge to create a property from a blank canvas and to see it influence the lives of young children. What a wonderful opportunity to be in an industry that can also profit from doing so much good for preschool children. Can just anyone produce the next Barney? Clearly not, but both our industry and preschoolers will benefit from some of those who try.

Richard Goldsmith is the president and CEO of Hollywood Ventures, headquartered in Los Angeles, California.

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