This guide is a distillation of everything I know about the making and selling of preschool television shows. I have kept it very simple because I believe that most people don’t like to read books or don’t have the time to read books. Reading has become something sweet and old-fashioned, like taking a walk or baking bread.
Though I work in television, I’m not a big fan of television. TV is like a big buffet table filled with foods that you don’t really like but can’t help eating. I do think television is a good way to reach lots of people. I used to write poems, which is not a good way to reach lots of people.
Someone once said that Hollywood is like high school with money. Well, preschool TV is like kindergarten without money. So, if you are reading this guide because you think it will help you make money, I suggest you read something else. Donald Trump has several books on this subject that are quite good. Donald Trump is an excellent business person and I think it is very telling that he has never shown any interest in investing his money in preschool TV.
People often ask me why I make programs for preschoolers. The truth is I believe that human beings peak at age four. At four we have our priorities straight. We put our family and our friends first. We like making art and dancing. We can spend the whole day talking about kangaroos.
But then something happens at around age seven. We become very concerned with what everyone else thinks of us and we start doing things more or less the way other kids do them. I don’t know why this is and I don’t expect there is much anyone can do about it.
I have always been a big believer in the saying, ‘Simple is Good.’ This is mostly because I have a very bad memory and the only way for me to remember anything is to keep it very simple. Towards this end, I have reduced my life down to a very short list that is easy for me to remember:
Whenever I am at a crossroads in my day or in my life, I ask myself which of these five things I most feel like doing. Invariably one of them pops out. And then I do that thing. And then I feel better.
I have worked in preschool TV for over 20 years, which is probably too long. But in that time I have thought a lot about this business and, mostly for my own sake, I have tried to keep it very simple. And now I want to share what I know with you.
The seven shapes of preschool television
I think sometimes it helps to see things as shapes. So I have reduced all preschool television down to seven basic shapes. They are as follows:
In each chapter I will explain why I chose that particular shape and what that shape means to me.
The dot represents the IDEA for a preschool show. I chose a dot because the idea for any preschool show should be very singular. Just like a dot.
Here is an example of a singular idea: The Blue Canoe is a preschool show about a brother and a sister who travel the world in their magical blue canoe learning how to help the environment around them.
Here’s another singular idea: Cherry Tomato! is a show about a young cherry tomato who spends her days at the local salad bar befriending a variety of vegetables who are different than she is.
An idea for a preschool show should not be complicated. For example, it should not be: Ferrets Away!, a show about Johnnie, Janie, Chewy and Cliff, four toyetic ferrets who love to read, count and visit with their friend, Oliver Owl, who tends his organic garden while taking care of his adopted bilingual grandson, Zula.
An idea for a preschool show should be one idea. Don’t be tempted to include everything you have always wanted to say about children or the world in your idea. This will only dilute and weaken it. You should be able to say your idea in one short sentence. Your idea should be singular like a dot. Simple is good.
The triangle represents the SHOW BIBLE. A show bible is another name for a proposal for a series. I chose a triangle because a show bible has three critical elements: writing, design and curriculum. You will notice that there is no mention of consumer products or licensing opportunities in this list. A show bible is not the place to discuss selling socks. The show bible should be about the show itself and why young children will love it. Period.
Your bible will need the following kinds of writing:
• A title
• An overview
• Character descriptions
• How an episode works
• A few plot synopses
• A summary
There is no formula for how a bible should be written. It is a creative act. Make it your own. Your bible should capture the voice of your show. If you feel you may not be the best person to write your bible, then don’t. Find someone else to do it, someone who is a better writer than you are.
Your title should be memorable and you should make sure that no one else has a show or a book or a toy with that same name. You can start by googling your title and see what comes up. Eventually, either you or a network will need to do a title search to determine if your title will ‘clear.’
A title search is typically done by an entertainment law firm and costs a few hundred dollars. The law firm will let you know if your title clears in various categories such as TV, books or apparel. Don’t be surprised if someone already owns your title and you need to come up with a new one.
The overview should come at the beginning of your bible and should describe very succinctly and clearly what your show is about. The writing should embody the spirit and character of your show.
Keep all writing in your bible short and sweet. I typically have only two or three sentences per page. My bibles are usually about 20 pages long. If I am pitching a short-form or interstitial series then my bibles are about five to 10 pages long. You will not win friends by writing a long bible because, as I said, most people don’t like to read.
Character descriptions should be no longer than a short paragraph. You should describe your characters very simply with an emphasis on who they are and not the fact that they carry a backpack or wear their baseball cap at an angle. (In fact, I would suggest avoiding backpacks and baseball caps altogether.)
I have seen people write long, detailed biographies of their characters that include family histories, favorite holidays and springtime allergies. Nobody cares. All you need to describe is who they are and how they relate to one another. Also, you only need a few main characters in a preschool show. For some reason people always add way too many characters.
I always include a section called, ‘How an episode works’ in which I lay out the main story beats of an episode. This helps the reader understand how all of your great ideas will flow if the show gets made.
Always write between three to five episode synopses and include these in your bible. A paragraph for each will do. Here is an example of a synopsis: In this episode of Puddle Jumpers, Topper travels through time to a one ring circus where he is asked to cover for the Ringmaster who has gotten a cold. Topper ends up participating in a variety of circus acts and finds himself high on the trapeze where he must perform a triple summersault for the big finale.
Always write episode ideas that are very different from one another to show that your series will stay fresh and not get predictable or dull over time.
Finally, you should write a brief summary on the last page of your bible. Your summary should state clearly and simply what your show is about, why it is special and why it will work on television.
As I said, these are general guidelines for writing your bible. The critical part is making the writing fresh and unique. Your show’s voice will need to be captured in the voice of your bible.
Television is a visual medium so your bible should be very visual. I typically work closely with our creative director, Jennifer Oxley, on all our bibles.
Unless you are a good designer, you should not design your characters yourself. Get someone to help you. I have never designed a character and I never will. Some things are best left to the professionals.
If you don’t know any character designers, you will need to find one. If you don’t know where to find one, just google ‘character designers’ and you will find 21,400,000 of them. I suspect you will find at least one you like who can work within your budget. And when talking to a designer, Jennifer says there are three things you should keep in mind: Visual references can be very useful; be as clear and honest as you can; positive feedback is just as important as negative feedback.
The design of your characters may make or break your whole concept. I have heard creators say, ‘Oh, I’ll revise these designs once the show gets picked up.’ I don’t recommend this approach. It’s like serving an uncooked meal and explaining to your guests that it would taste good if it were cooked. Always present completed color designs in your show bible.
Jennifer and I believe that successful preschool characters should be touchable and huggable. This can be conveyed through texture, color, shape and the materials that are used to make the characters. When you look at your characters, ask yourself if you would honestly want to pick one up and hug it. If the answer is no, it’s not good for preschool.
The design of the backgrounds in your bible should also be very unique and beautiful. But it is important that the backgrounds not be too busy and that they not compete with your characters. The characters are the stars of any preschool bible.
It is critical that there be a clear connection between the writing on the page and the image on the page. So, if you are describing a part of your show in which Bucky the Fisherman meets The Mermaid, show an image of Bucky the Fisherman meeting The Mermaid.
There are a few other principles that Jennifer and I have arrived at that we think work well in bibles. We always have an image on every page and we try not to repeat an image more than once. We look at how the images flow from one to another and we try to keep surprising our reader with new images. So, if your main character waves hello on page three, don’t have your main character wave hello on page four.
It is important not to clutter the pages with extra visual information. It should be very clear what the reader should be looking at at any given time. If you want to show a cute sea lion talking to a walrus, don’t add a polar bear and 15 penguins.
There are so many preschool shows out there that I suggest you find a look for your show that is both bold and original. It must stand out to survive. No one wants a show that looks like another show. Or at least no one you want to do business with.
In the US, it is important that every preschool show have some form of educational curriculum. Unless you are an early childhood expert with experience writing curricula for preschool TV shows, you should not attempt to write the curriculum yourself. This is true even if you have kids and are very smart.
Get someone to help you who has experience. You can find the best curriculum people by watching the credits at the end of any good preschool show. Usually these individuals have a title such as ‘Director of Research’ and ‘Ph.D.’ after their names.
If you are making a show outside of the US, I suggest that you still get someone with experience in the US to write your curriculum. This will help you when you try to sell your show in the US.
Ideally, the person you work with will be open to your ideas about the show’s educational goals and will also have a strong point of view of their own. I typically meet with our director of research, Dr. Laura G. Brown, at a very early stage in the development of a new show. She and I will discuss my creative idea and she will make suggestions for the kinds of educational goals that the idea might lend itself to. For example, I might say, ‘I’m thinking about a Baby Lobster who finds a passage from her aquarium into the ocean and has undersea adventures every night.’ Then Dr. Brown might say, ‘Well, she sounds very adventurous, so maybe this is a show about courage and overcoming fears. Or perhaps it’s a show about content knowledge because surely the Baby Lobster will be learning about the many new things that go on outside of her aquarium.’
This dialogue between Dr. Brown and me might go on for anywhere between an hour and a month. The important thing is that it is a dialogue. We listen to one another, we have disagreements, we laugh and invariably we find educational goals that work for both of us as well as for the Baby Lobster.
These educational goals form the foundation of her curriculum document which becomes part of the bible. The educational goals in a preschool curriculum can range from pre-reading and math skills to pro-social goals like cooperation or celebrating diversity. Typically, a show will have just one or two goals.
The creative and the educational elements in a preschool show must work together and complement one another to form what I call the show’s DNA.
I have seen shows in which a curriculum was retrofitted onto existing content. This simply doesn’t work; it is like trying to hide behind a moustache. Most broadcasters reject this approach because the episodes will not align well with the show’s stated curriculum.
I have to confess that I sometimes refer to people in the research area as ‘joke killers.’ Why? Because some of them believe their job is to go through a script and cut anything they deem to be not educational. They simply don’t appreciate the importance of a good joke or an entertaining story. Just as a good meal must taste good and be good for you, a good show must entertain and educate. If the kids aren’t watching your show then they certainly aren’t learning from it.
It is critical that whoever supports your project in the educational area has an appreciation of the creative process and a good sense of humor.
To summarize, a show bible has three elements: writing, design and curriculum. A show bible does not talk about selling toys and it does not talk about budgets. It is meant to get others excited by your idea with great images, great writing and a strong curriculum. Simple is good.
Part two of the series will appear in KidScreen‘s April issue, where Josh will examine The Line (the broadcaster) and The Circle (finance). Little Airplane Books is publishing Simple Is Good in summer 2009.