When all you do every day for 20 years is live, eat and breathe preschool television, you don’t have much else to talk about. I was at a dinner party the other night and all the New York types were talking about art, fashion and politics. I just sat there quietly waiting for the conversation to turn to puppets, co-productions or Ming-Ming Duckling, anything that I might know something about.
But it never happened.
So you can imagine how happy I was to meet J.J. Johnson. J.J. shares my rather specialized interest in television for three- to six-year-olds. If you don’t know J.J. or his wonderful company, Sinking Ship Productions, you most certainly know his hit shows which include, This Is Daniel Cook, This is Emily Yeung and Are We There Yet?
During KidScreen Summit, I had the good fortune to catch up with J.J. We chatted happily for hours about “coprolite” (fossilized dinosaur poop), network script notes, and the significant differences between the two. We talked about the importance of showing kids as kids, the stresses of being a creative person running a business, and who we are most fond of among our various broadcast partners.
In short, J.J. Johnson is a kindred spirit and a friend.
So I was thrilled when J.J. agreed to be a “guest blogger” for this week’s installment of Planet Preschool. I invited J.J. to write about whatever he wanted to. So here it is.
First off, I’d like to thank Josh for giving me the opportunity to sound off here and creating a forum for people interested in kids’ media to share their ups and downs. So, from a Sinking Ship to a Little Airplane, here goes:
For the better part of grade two, whenever I drew a picture of myself, I would always draw a little red person inside of me. For months, this went unnoticed by my teacher, her probably mistaking the red blob as just that, an extra dollop of paint. But as my mastery over crayons and paints improved that year, so too did my red person. He soon sprouted horns and a sinister-looking expression. Eventually, Ms. Cameron did ask me what exactly that thing was inside of my stomach.
My answer set into motion a flurry of parent-teacher interventions the likes of which I still only have little snippets of recollections. Needless to say, for much of grade two, I thought I was possessed by the devil.
I saw “The Exorcist” when I was seven. I wasn’t supposed to, I was warned against watching it but, as the youngest of four, my viewing habits were often determined by whatever my older brother or sisters were watching. So on one particularly fateful babysitting evening in 1987, that viewing included “The Exorcist.”
While my older siblings watched the film in our family room, I tried to busy myself in the adjoining playroom with my Ghostbusters figurines. But, as the demonic screams from the other room increased in volume, my resolve to stay by myself diminished. Eventually, my mind had conjured up such frightening imagery from those noises that I figured the actual movie couldn’t be as bad as what my imagination had wrought. I was wrong.
I think we all have these “media moments” in our lives, moments where you see something on screen and it has such a powerful impact on you that it feels almost as though it’s seared into your mind. For me, seeing that girl’s head twist around was one such moment. But not one that I necessarily regret, because over that – mostly sleepless – year I thought about religion, life and death, spirituality, fate and how to get a demon out of me. There were so many different ideas that sprung forth from that one exposure.
Throughout my childhood, my brain was “seared” countless times by these types of moments: going through the “Polka Dot Door” to see how crayons were made and realizing that things are actually “made;” watching Pee-wee Herman connect the dots on his show, “connect the dots, la la la la laaaa” and being blown away by just how creative and magical it all was; watching an alien rip out of someone’s chest in Aliens – another bad babysitting night, but inspiration for a whole new thing to draw inside of me.
I guess what I’m trying to get at – in a horribly convoluted roundabout kind of way – is that these “searing” moments (minus the demon and the alien) are the types of experiences I hope our Sinking Ship series engender in our young audience and the types of mind bombs we as content producers should strive to create. Because it’s within these moments that I believe kids’ minds actually expand like fireworks, bursting open to new thoughts and ideas. They’re hard to qualify, especially as different moments appeal to different kids, but there are ways to cast our creative nets wider:
- Kids don’t like repetition any more than adults do. I repeat: kids don’t like repetition any more than adults do. Yes, kids like watching certain things over and over again, and then they overdose on them, and then move on. But that doesn’t mean we should encourage that habit. Be playful with the form and structure of your series, change things up in the second season, have fun with your stories, make them a bit more complex.
- Don’t aim for the lowest common denominator. Be mindful with your educational consultants that your stories and action don’t become so simplified and basic that it just washes over your preschool audience. We wonder aloud why kids are watching shows above their age range: it’s because we’re shooting too low for their mental abilities. We need to aim higher, keep them on their toes, challenge them, inspire them. Maybe they don’t all fully understand what you’re going for after the first viewing, but as in point one, they’ll have plenty of repeated opportunities to get it.
- Take more chances. One of Sinking Ship’s least financially successful series is also one I’m most proud of, “The Jungle Room.” It’s a reality series set inside a daycare. We followed the lives of seven four to six-year-old kids as they interacted with one another. There were fights, bouts of kissing tag, friendships lost and started anew, expressions of love, tears, screams and that was just the pilot! The series was an eye-opener to me because it showed just how big the emotional lives of children are. We need to reflect that better onscreen and we need to do it with real kids. There is a disproportionate quantity of animation and puppets in preschool television. As you work on your next brilliant idea, ask yourself why isn’t it live action, why can’t we investigate negative emotions, why can’t we truly show kids as kids – wonderfully weird and infinitely interesting. On a curious side note to all you broadcasters out there, The Jungle Room with all its punching, crying and kissing, has yet to receive a single parent complaint. Not one. I guess parents are ahead of us in realizing that kids will be kids.
So in the end, let us all continue to push boundaries, experiment and be as truthful to our audience as broadcast guidelines will allow. Let us all remember what it was like being a kid, and how wondrous and scary and brilliant and messy it was. Now let’s show that on-screen.