Jan-Willem Bult, who heads up KRO in the Netherlands and who makes some of the bravest and most interesting children’s TV programming in the world, wrote something important on Facebook last week that I want to share with you:
“Show character, inside and outside the show.”
I love this. And the reason I love it is that there is so very little character in preschool TV these days. You used to be able to start with a great idea and then pitch it to a broadcaster and they would say, “I like this idea and I think the kids will like it so let’s give it a try.”
Then you’d get to make a couple of episodes or perhaps a few seasons. And then someone would say, “This is really good, maybe we can make a book or some toys to extend the experience for the kids.” Then sometimes you would sell products, and sometimes you wouldn’t, but my point is that the show was seen as having value in and of itself.
But not anymore. Now, most of the shows that are made for preschoolers are just advertisements for nascent licensing programs. And it doesn’t matter if these are US-style educational shows or British-style entertainment shows. It doesn’t matter if you are working with a public broadcaster or a commercial broadcaster. Because even if your public broadcaster is not openly in the licensing business, you can be quite certain that whoever is fronting the show’s budget is. And no toy sales means no new money for new episodes. That’s the sad bottom line of preschool TV.
I don’t know anybody who decided to get into preschool television because they had a driving passion to sell plastic to preschoolers. Most of the people I know in preschool TV are educators or artists who wanted to make something new and different for children, something that would delight and inspire them. This was as true for the show makers as the executives running the shows. We were all charged with making great programs and then it was someone else’s job to figure out how to sell quality products based on the show and its cuddly characters.
But now the preschool TV world is largely driven by licensing people, many of whom will openly admit that they don’t care about the quality of the show. I recently had one colleague say to me without hesitation, “But, Josh, isn’t it the crappy stuff that makes the most money?”
The answer is “no.” A few of the crappy shows do make money but overall the big hits of the past decade have been creator-driven shows with a strong sense of design, good writing and usually some kind of real formative research.
It makes me very sad indeed that the pivotal decisions in our industry are now made by people charged only with showing quick financial returns. Call me old fashioned but I still believe there is something sacred about making programs for children who are so young that they still believe in Santa Claus. And I believe that using all of our talents and resources solely to sell plastic products to these impressionable minds is downright sinister.
So, given the overwhelmingly commercial environment that we find ourselves in, how do we continue to make programs where quality is key? How do we show character when everyone around us just wants us to show them the money?
I think there are a lot of ways. Just look at Cate McQuillen who has her deals written so that no product related to her series “dirtgirlworld” can harm the environment in any way. Cate protects every aspect of her extraordinary series like a she-wolf protecting her cubs from a roaming predator. Cate’s approach has also proven to be good business as “dirtgirlworld” has now sold into virtually every territory on the planet at a time when parents are looking to make more responsible choices.
Or look at J.J. Johnson and his commitment to making live-action shows that feature real kids who actually look and sound like real kids. From “This Is Daniel Cook,” to “Are We There Yet,” to “Dino Dan,” J.J. has consistently made honest shows about childhood in a world that pushes us all to cast kids that look and sound like airbrushed androids.
Or look at Little Airplane’s Musical Director, Jeffrey Lesser. Before coming to Little Airplane, Jeffrey produced artists like Barbra Streisand, Lou Reed and the Chieftains. Jeffrey now brings his sensibility and attention to detail to creating all the sounds for “3rd & Bird” and “Small Potatoes.” To me, Jeffrey’s passion for music is a deep expression of character that uplifts our entire industry.
I can already hear some of you saying, “Oh, well, quality depends on having a big budget.” That’s simply not true. Blaming your budget is a convenient and over-used excuse in preschool TV. We have all seen what is possible on a limited budget, from the Japan Prize-winning “Tsehai Loves Learning,” to Nickelodeon’s “Stick Stickley” to our own “Oobi!” which was made for less than most shows spend on their catering. Quality has never been contingent on money. Quality depends on resourcefulness and creativity.
There are so few people anymore showing any real passion for the quality of the actual show. There is so little character left in my beloved preschool industry. As David Kleeman so brilliantly showed in his presentation at Prix Jeunesse, so many of the new crop of kids’ shows, “Are all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same.”
I met so many of you at Prix Jeunesse and elsewhere who are doing such brave and brilliant work under some very tough circumstances. How do you show character inside and outside of your shows? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this. And, as always, I wish you all strength and courage to keep making preschool programs that are rooted in something deeper than simple commercial gain.