I know that for many of you in the preschool space these are very bad times indeed. The decline in broadcast license fees and DVD sales combined with the glut of readily available (if mediocre) preschool shows has wreaked havoc on big and small indies alike. Put simply, there is very little money coming into the preschool industry and it still costs millions of dollars to make even the mediocre shows. The money that does come in is mostly in the form of toy sales and selling toys requires (but does not necessarily follow) a ratings hit on Nick or Disney in the US. And, as you all know, the acquisition slots on these channels are few and far between. To make matters worse, even if you are able to get one of these coveted slots, your show will never get the kind of love that they will give to their own shows. And who can blame them? These networks are entitled to reap the benefits of the amazing platforms that they have built over the past two decades.
So what do you do if you really, really, really want to make preschool shows anyway? Do you take a vow of poverty? Do you set up a puppet show in Central Park? Do you apply for Canadian citizenship? Do you fold up like a taco?
I think about this question almost daily because I am someone who really, really, really wants to keep making preschool shows. I also happen to believe that the best preschool shows still come from smaller companies who bring a level of passion and creativity that is very hard for the bigger players to match. So, if you plan to stay in the preschool game like I do, here is exactly what I suggest:
1) Don’t Do It For The Money. If you’re only in preschool TV to sell a bunch of toys, then I think you should rethink your career goals. There are so many easier ways to make money than trying to figure out what a four-year-old wants to watch on TV or wants to buy in the toy aisle at Wal-Mart. And, besides, if you don’t truly and genuinely care about preschoolers, you really have no business making content for them anyway. Nor are you likely to be very good at it.
2) Spread Your Bets. Don’t assume that any one property is going to make (or break) you. Always have a few things going on. Some big and some small. And though your own shows should always be your priority, there is no shame in helping others make their preschool TV dreams come true. Little Airplane regularly helps other companies and individuals with their development, research and music. Always remember that you are part of a larger community and in a healthy community we should try to help one another.
3) Keep Up. As our industry tries to re-make some sense of itself, companies everywhere are restructuring. This means that executives and commissioners are changing or losing their jobs almost daily. You can no longer depend on your old contacts to keep you in business. The person that you met with at MIP JR. last year will not be the person that you meet with this year. Even the journalists in the children’s space are changing jobs these days. It is more essential than ever that you stay current, read the trades, get out to the conferences and meet the new crop of people commissioning and financing preschool shows. And always remember that they want to meet with you, too!
4) Travel Light. When I was a street performer I learned this lesson and it has served me well ever since: Carry only that which you really need. Keep your overhead to the absolute minimum. Start all your meetings on time and include only those who contribute. Expect your staff to multi-task. Live within your means. And fly coach.
5) Never Surrender. The next two years will separate the men from the boys and the women from the girls. Do you have the stomach to stay in preschool? If not, see you later. But if you do, get ready for the ride of your life. You will need every ounce of creativity, stamina and chutzpah that you’ve got to make it to 2012 in one piece. If you’re in this business for the right reasons–to make content that will delight and educate the youngest and most impressionable viewers–then I believe you will not only survive the next few years, but you will thrive. You will be among the very few professionals left standing who truly understand this unique demographic and that will make you very valuable indeed. Because even though preschool TV may be in bad shape at the moment, there will always be new preschoolers coming down the pike and they will always need someone to make high quality shows, books, apps and toys for them. They will need someone who genuinely cares about their well-being and is not just interested in selling them a lot of junk. In short, they will need someone like you.
So, stay strong. Innovate with your shows, your music, your games and your books. Find new and unexpected ways of reaching your audience. Surprise everyone. Remember why you first got into this business. And never surrender.