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On the proper care and feeding of a show Creator

People often ask me why I make preschool shows. The truth is I believe human beings peak at age four. At that age, we are kind and compassionate. We spend our days dreaming of kangaroos, igloos, birthdays and beanstalks. I make TV shows that celebrate this special time in our lives, and my hope is that my programs will entertain and educate young children while reminding the rest of us what is important in life.
September 1, 2006

People often ask me why I make preschool shows. The truth is I believe human beings peak at age four. At that age, we are kind and compassionate. We spend our days dreaming of kangaroos, igloos, birthdays and beanstalks. I make TV shows that celebrate this special time in our lives, and my hope is that my programs will entertain and educate young children while reminding the rest of us what is important in life.

I am what is known in our business as a show creator. Since starting up Little Airplane Productions I’ve created Oobi! (Noggin), Go, Baby! (Playhouse Disney), and Wonder Pets! (Nick Jr.).

I don’t yet have kids of my own, but the shows I create are like my kids and I fight for them with the same tenacity as those penguins who struggle through the winter to insure that their fragile eggs make it to spring. And in our competitive and specialized industry, you need a creator on your team who will put his or her life down to protect that little egg of a show or it will invariably touch the ice one day and perish.

But creators present a variety of problems for broadcasters and production companies that I’m not unsympathetic to. Most companies operate on the assumption that groups make better decisions than individuals. In some cases this is true, but for better or worse the creative process has always been at odds with corporate group dynamics. We have all been at those meetings where reaching a consensus killed whatever creative spark might have been struggling to catch fire. I believe shows that come from a creative individual or a small, creative team will always be bolder and more original than those birthed via conference calls. And in a preschool television environment brimming over with choice for broadcasters, originality is key. If a show is not truly original, no one will notice it. Not the programmers, not the parents, and certainly not the kids.

Allowing a creator to create requires a level of self-control difficult for many companies to muster. After all, with millions of dollars on the line, surely some feedback will help a creator make a better show. Yes, some feedback. But the feedback should be smart and respectful, and should never undermine the creator’s vision or cause him/her to divest from the show. This would be a tremendous loss to any production because it is just the creator’s investment – their passion for their egg – that is the one known ingredient of all truly great television shows.

I feel very fortunate to have worked with companies that have the confidence to champion creator-driven shows. In some people’s eyes, the big media giants are seen as the enemy of creativity. This has not been my experience. The creative executives at the larger U.S. and British networks are smart people with great taste, and when it comes to supporting and empowering the vision of creators, nobody does it better. These executives understand they’ll always get higher-quality programs when they let creators do their thing. Quite simply, it is good business.

I have also worked with less confident companies and executives and am always impressed by how many more notes – and more unhelpful notes – I receive from them. The less self-assured an executive is, the more he or she seems to feel the need to bombard creators with comments and opinions from a wide array of consultants and co-workers. Of course, these companies are simply trying to hedge their bets and avoid making costly mistakes during development. The problem with this approach is, however, all these voices invariably dull the edge of any truly original idea. Too many cooks, as we have all seen, make very bad TV shows.

Whether we like it or not, preschool television is show business and, as such, it involves creative risk taking. The question all companies face is this: Do I go with the gut feeling of a shaggy show creator or do I trust a panel of consultants and Ph.Ds who might not know a joke if it bit them in the butt? Me? I would go with the instincts of a good creator every time. But then again, I am just a little biased.

Josh Selig is President of New York-based Little Airplane Productions. He can be seen running by the Hudson River dreaming about kangaroos, igloos, birthdays and beanstalks.

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