I’m on a plane with my girlfriend Mary heading to Los Angeles for the Emmys. As we were boarding at New York’s JFK, we ran into an old friend of mine from my Sesame Street days, Bob McGrath. Yes, the Bob McGrath. As some of you may know, I grew up on the set of Sesame Street and there was no performer I loved and looked up to more than Bob.
As an adult, I returned to Sesame Street as a writer, filmmaker and producer. And Bob was always there, like a guardian angel, checking in with me and making sure I was okay. To me, Bob is Sesame Street. His warm eyes, his accepting smile, his generosity of spirit. And I’m happy to say that none of these qualities have diminished over time.
Seeing Bob again reminded me of something that it is easy to forget in our current climate of toy-driven preschool television: To connect with young kids, you’ve got to lead with your heart. I know this sounds naïve and I know there is no line for “love” in any of our budgets but without this direct connection from the heart of the show creator through the writers, the performers, the composers, the animators and the producers all the way to the heart of the child at home, a show is nothing. It’s just another half-hour on the big television slagheap.
Young children seem to prioritize love above all else. This is why I have always felt that human beings peak at around age four. At four their priorities are straight: Love, food, play, family, music, friends. If the adults I know were focused on such things they would be far happier and the world would be far better off. But most adults and most businesses I know are concerned first and foremost with money. Particularly the ones who seem to need it the least. In fact, I am always amazed at the way greed drives the decision-making in the lives of those around me. And I’m dumbfounded at how otherwise good people dress up their greed as virtues (good business, fairness) so that they can feel okay about taking far more than they need or deserve.
Because young children lead with their hearts, I believe their shows must do the same. And for those of you who may be puzzled by the success of certain preschool shows over the years that may not have had the highest production values, ask yourself what these shows do have. I suspect you will find that the shows all have a lot of heart.
This week I took a trip up to Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York with my best friend and mentor, Cathy Chilco. It was an important and a rejuvenating time for me. We walked on the trails and sat by the lily pad pond and talked and laughed and listened to the cicadas. By the time I returned to New York City, I had a new perspective on my life and career and how I will make my decisions.
In the old days (meaning last week) I had three very specific criteria for taking on a new job at Little Airplane:
1) It will make us money.
2) My team and I will learn something.
3) We will work with someone we want to work with.
This week I have changed the criteria: I will only make work that I love. Period. Perhaps this is a luxury but I don’t think so. If we love what we’re working on, then chances are we will put everything into it and, because of that, chances are it will find some success in the world.
The whole time I was at Mohonk, I kept remembering a line of poetry that I wrote in college:
“I will not say anything
that has not come to me itself
and asked to be said.
Because these things are important.
These are the words I will try to give back.”
That’s the work I want to make, work that rises up from deep inside of me. Because in the end, I don’t care about the Emmys or money or what channel a show is on. I am really only interested in making honest work that has a genuine, human connection to children and their families. The rest is ephemeral and will quickly fade from the airwaves and from all our memories. To make preschool television just for the money is as sad to me as becoming a medical doctor and then only performing nose jobs in Beverly Hills.
I guess I find myself writing about such things lately because I feel a real distress when I look around at the state of the preschool television industry. Even the networks and production companies that I once had such great respect for seem to have moved incrementally and unapologetically away from their missions of helping kids and more towards their business interests. Though I don’t fault any company for trying to survive and make a buck, I do believe that financial goals must be tempered and informed by a deeper mission or else we’re all just building shopping networks for preschoolers.
Ironically, I believe that leading with business interests is the one sure fire way to not make a hit in preschool television. I have seen first hand the way the fragile show development process can be driven into a ditch by well-meaning consumer products people who provide the vehicle.
The secret to making a hit (if there is one) is to let strong show creators create the shows and then afterwards let strong CP people figure out what they can sell. I’m thinking of great shows like Blue’s Clues and SpongeBob Squarepants that broke all the rules and still found great success.
Sorry for the rant. As you all know by now, I take the work I do very personally. And I strongly believe that what our industry needs, both for its soul and for its success, is more heart. More love. More Bob McGrath.
What’s on your mind? Have you felt a shift away from values-driven preschool television and towards shows that will simply sell product? I’d love to hear your voice.