I have been learning about the Shakers, those serious looking early Americans with the large, high foreheads and the funny little bonnets. You probably know them for their classic, high-backed Shaker Chairs, which, like their builders, are stoic, timeless and quietly beautiful.
But the Shakers were more than chair makers. They were architects and intellectuals. They invented the flat broom and the circular saw. They engineered nearly perfect vegetable seeds that were shipped all over America in little paper packets. The Shakers were entirely celibate and they used some of these free evenings to become America’s first pacifists, feminists and abolitionists. The Shakers might have looked dull, but they rocked.
Here is what I love best about the Shakers: Whether they were making a chair, a dance, or a loaf of bread, they viewed each and every task as an opportunity to connect personally with their faith. As you can imagine, this raised the stakes considerably on anything the Shakers made. Though they peaked at just 8,000 members, these industrious souls with their relentless pursuit of perfection touched every aspect of American life and even shaped the world’s conception of Democracy.
So what does this have to do with making preschool TV shows? Everything. On a preschool show, every decision is an opportunity to reach for something better and more beautiful, something that will resonate and connect with a child and her family. Each line of dialogue has the potential to become memorable. (“This is sewrious!”) And every character might become a child’s most beloved friend. (Elmo.) In other words, preschool TV is exactly as good as we make it.
So it breaks my heart to see that the entire preschool TV industry is becoming more or less reduced to a Rubik’s Cube of financing models, licensing deals, and tax credits with little regard for the actual finished preschool show.
“Little regard for the show? What’s he talking about?”
Allow me to explain. I have just finished screening over twenty hours of preschool shows from all over the world. I did not do this for fun. I did it because my friend Jocelyn asked me to help prescreen the shows for the upcoming KidScreen Awards. And I always do whatever Joce asks me to.
What troubled me so much as I watched the submissions, was the almost complete lack of attention to quality and detail in the vast majority of the preschool shows. In other words, they were bad. Bad writing. Bad design. Bad animation. Oh, and bad music. Now, before you get upset with me for criticizing shows that are not well-funded, let me assure you that the shows I am criticizing were well-funded. It was not a lack of money that made these shows bad, it was the sense that nobody really loved them.
So many of these shows appeared to have been assembled, not crafted. They were mass-produced, not nurtured along, story by story, composition by composition, until slowly and carefully, like a child, they learned how to sing. These programs appeared to be no more than someone’s cynical attempt to put a 26-episode bet down in the casino of consumer products that is now our preschool TV industry.
That’s what bummed me out. Because I was brought up, literally and figuratively, on the set of Sesame Street, where we were taught that our job was to make the highest quality educational preschool shows we could. Period. I still remember when Norman Stiles, my first Head Writer, told me, “Josh, these puppets have souls.” And he was right. I remember once I wrote seven drafts of a script for Norman until I got it right. And I learned something every draft. That’s the Shaker-like preschool TV discipline that I was schooled in. And that’s what’s missing on so many shows.
Now, I am not unaware of the financial realities of our industry. I have been living them since I started Little Airplane over ten years ago with $5,000. (Without ever, I might add, taking on a dime of debt.) And I am not without sympathy for the complex international deals that must be made to get a show produced these days. But we mustn’t let money or time or anything else become the scapegoat for delivering poor quality preschool shows for our kids.
There are so many examples of shows that were made on a shoestring that turned out beautifully simply because someone cared about them. I am thinking now of “Tsehai Loves Learning” from Whiz Kids Workshop in Ethiopia, a brave and lovely show that took home last year’s Japan Prize. I am quite certain that the whole budget for “Tsehai” was less then the rental fee of one docked yacht for four days at MIPCOM. Not to mention the catering.
So often we hear “the devil is in the details.” Well, so are the angels. People are amazed when they learn that we do everything under one roof at Little Airplane, from writing the scripts to research testing to recording the music with live musicians to animating our shows. We do this for a reason. Because it is the details that make a show special and we like how we handle our own details.
For those of you who are thinking that this approach can only work for a wealthy company, I can assure that Little Airplane is not a wealthy company. And we have used this identical approach on shows that have had healthy budgets, like Wonder Pets! and shows that have had virtually no budgets, like Oobi! or our new hand-drawn series, Tobi!
Now, I will concede that the Shakers didn’t last. There were two main reasons for this: 1) Their products were undersold by less-expensive, mass-produced goods, and; 2) They were celibate and therefore did not make any new little Shakers to wear the bonnets and carry on the work.
Could the same fate befall a company like Little Airplane? Celibate or not, I’m sure that it could. But that would be okay. Personally, I’d rather be remembered as a long-gone maker of fine furniture than as a thriving maker of vinyl barstools. But I don’t believe that will happen to us.
I believe that there will always be a need for preschool shows that are borne of love, craftsmanship and a commitment to early child development. Why? Because “creator-driven shows” have a better track record in our industry–both with families and consumer products–than shows that are formulaic, poorly made, or simply, unloved.
And I’m heartened when I see the success of companies like Sinking Ship in Canada, or Ragdoll and Tiger Aspect in the UK. These companies are, in my opinion, making the new Shaker Chairs of preschool television. Their programs inspire me. These are my role models, and their work reminds us what’s possible even in our troubled preschool TV industry.
“Don’t make something unless it is both necessary
but if it is both necessary and useful,
don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.”
– Shaker Dictum