Every now and then I am forced to question why I am in the business of making kid’s TV shows. The last time was a few weeks ago at Brand Licensing Europe. I was walking down the aisle wearing my little badge, when I was forced to wait because two androids wearing purple spandex were about to face off with plastic sabers in an intergalactic showdown designed to steer buyers to booth #463B.
Like everyone else, I was a little annoyed and, as I waited for the battle to end, I tried to comfort myself by telling myself that I am different from these androids, that I have loftier goals in attending Brand Licensing Europe and that my characters, because they do not fight with plastic sabers, are good and virtuous and contribute to society.
But then I heard my grandfather’s voice whispering to me from the distant past. He said to me, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, “Josh, you will be judged by the company you keep.”
So I went to a pub and rediscovered Pimms.
Fortunately, I have also had many moments that have left me feeling hopeful about this grossly commercial sandbox we all play in. The last such good moment was at Prix Jeunesse in May. I was sitting there in a television stupor after watching 36 consecutive hours of earnest children’s TV programming. Suddenly, something came on the screen that was so honest, so moving and so important that I laughed and I actually cried.
It was a puppet show from Ethiopia called, Tsehai Loves Learning. The episode was about a little girl turtle named Tsinat who had lost her mother to HIV. Tsinat takes an imaginary ride on the wings of a butterfly to go and see her mother up on a cloud one last time. The theme of the episode was loss and it was handled sensitively and poetically. Though it was made inexpensively and the production values were just okay, the characters and the writing were so strong and so real that no one could look away.
Later that week, the show’s Creator, Shane Etzenhouser, walked away with the 2008 Prix Jeunesse International Next Generation Prize. No one has ever deserved it more. And just this week, Tsehai Loves Learning won the top prize in the preschool category at the Japan Prize 2008 International Contest for Educational Media.
I got to know Shane at Prix Jeunesse and he is the real deal, a genuinely kind and creative producer who wants to use television to help the children of Ethiopia. I have stayed in touch with Shane and he even attended the Little Airplane Academy this past summer in New York as our guest.
Whenever I feel the awful weight of the commercialism that has infected our industry, I think about Shane and Tsehai Loves Learning and I am reminded that television can still do great and noble things. As it happens, I had an e-mail discussion this week with Shane that I would like to share with you.
Josh: What inspired you to make your show?
Shane: In order to try to escape from what I felt was a miserably uncreative life, I started making puppets on the train to work and writing little songs to record and make video clips for my niece. I then heard from a friend about someone in Ethiopia who had a children’s magazine and wanted to make a TV show and instantly decided that’s what I was going to do. I was going to move to Ethiopia and help this guy make a kids TV show. So I moved to Ethiopia and volunteered at his primary school where I met my wife Brukty who was an amazingly skilled teacher there. What we found was that, by far, the largest gap in the educational system in Ethiopia was in the area of preschools and kindergartens. There basically aren’t any. We also saw that there had been 400% growth in the number of televisions in Ethiopia over the previous 10-year period. It all led in one direction and we had increased confidence now in our ability to write scripts and produce content. One afternoon at a cafe, we decided that we should shift to preschool television and create our own series and we came up with our main characters and the synopses to our first 4 episodes. It was a pretty good day.
Josh: What were the biggest challenges you faced initially?
Shane: We continue to face major challenges throughout the process. The biggest challenge is always to not get discouraged. We have a very hard time finding funding for this project and a hard time finding skilled people who we can share some of the workload with. But the biggest challenge has always been, and continues to be, probably one of encouragement.
That’s part of why encouragement from people like you, or winning the Prix Jeunesse prize is so meaningful to us. The children and parents of Ethiopia seem to love our show and really understand its value and importance but often not the people who are in a position to make the show stronger. It’s powerfully encouraging to have pros in the world of children’s television recognize our work.
Josh: What’s next for your team?
Shane: We’re getting involved in a few training initiatives where we’re teaching others how we create children’s shows. We do this in part to develop a pool of human resources in Ethiopia, in part to stimulate more local content in local languages and in part because we need funding to keep our doors open – we’ve found it easier to find funding for training than for content production.
We’re also starting to examine ways to bring in residual income from our productions and starting to focus a little on the money, unfortunately, because we don’t want to have to keep looking for funds and want to find a way to make our project self-sustaining. We’re also exploring ideas for a couple of new series, one of which will become a project for the Prix Jeunesse Next Generation Prize.
Josh: How could others help you continue with this or other projects?
Shane: Our biggest challenge is always in raising funds for the project. My wife and I do basically everything for the show except the artwork and, among all the hats we wear, raising funds for the project is probably our biggest weakness. So any connections to funding sources or advocates for our project or even minor contributions to it are of the greatest importance.
We could really use some professional help from people who need a break from their work and would like to volunteer for any time from 2 weeks to 6 months and help strengthen the project and train people locally. Our greatest needs are project managers, proposal writers, animators and artists, and curriculum experts.
Josh: How would you describe your mission as a show creator and as a person?
Shane: I think the meaning of life has to be external; in doing something meaningful for other people and trying to leave the planet a little better than you inherited it. We’d like to make the lives of children better in Ethiopia and provide them with better access to education, and then find some way to help people in other places do the same thing.
For more information about Shane Etzenhouser and Whiz Kids Workshop P.L.C., please contact Shane at email@example.com
**Just a reminder: I invite you to send me short, interesting anecdotes about preschool television projects from around the world that are currently in production. Please do not send me press releases or call me on the phone or pitch me shows.
Also, please don’t get mad at me if I don’t reply to you or write about your stuff. I am only one person. Please send all e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org