I feel sad today. For the third week in a row I have received news that dear friends in the international preschool TV business have, for one reason or another, found themselves looking for a job. And these are extraordinary people, smart people, creative people who have given a decade or more of service to their companies.
But this is a sign of the times. The kids’ TV business has lost a lot of blood in the past three years. License fees now barely cover the cost of dubbing. There are warehouses full of preschool shows that cannot find a good home. And new lines of business like apps won’t make up for the collapse of the DVD market any time soon.
Our whole industry is in freefall at the moment so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many companies are restructuring and jobs are going away. But it still hurts.
What to do? How to feel? Where is the silver lining?
What I keep thinking about is the year 1999, which is the year I was let go from Sesame Street. I had been there for 10 years and I loved it and I felt very secure. But with one five-minute phone call from the new executive producer, it was over. I felt abandoned. This had been my first and only job in children’s TV and, as far as I was concerned, Sesame Street was the children’s TV industry.
So I did what any naïve preschool TV writer/producer would do: I started a business. I called it Little Airplane Productions. And it was a very slow take-off.
For the first year it was just myself and my friend Lori Sherman (now Lori Shaer) working out of a one room office in Tribeca and sitting on the cheapest Ikea furniture we could find. Back then, we paid ourselves according to a formula we called, “A third, a third and a third.” Meaning, every time we finished a small production job, we would split whatever profit was left in the budget three ways. Lori got a third. I got a third. And Little Airplane got a third. That first year we both earned less than the guy washing our windows. But we really didn’t care.
It was an incredible year of hustling, struggling and learning. We had to figure out how to meet and impress unfamiliar companies like Noggin, Disney, Discovery Kids and Nickelodeon. We were scraping by on small live-action service jobs and a little bit of our own original IP, an interstitial series called, “Oobi!” But we happily discovered that there was life after Sesame Workshop.
None of this would have happened had I stayed at Sesame. The simple fact of not having a regular paycheck forced me to ask myself, “Who do I really want to be when I grow up? What do I really want to make?” And, more importantly, it forced me to look within for some good, honest answers.
And I think that’s what any big upheaval does for us. It requires us to step out of the daily flow of activity that we’ve become so accustomed to and say, “Who am I without this title, this company, this relationship?”
And if we are patient with the answers to these questions, if we allow them to rise up slowly and naturally from within, they are likely to reveal a deeper ambition and truer purpose than the one we have known in the past.
“Perhaps all the dragons of our lives,” wrote Rilke, “are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.” I believe this is true. And I believe that the pain that so many are experiencing right now is really just the preamble for whatever brave new adventures lie ahead.
As I’ve said before, none of us go it alone. That’s as true in the good times as the bad. If this is a bad time for you, don’t be afraid to reach out to your friends and colleagues in the children’s media world. Don’t be afraid to ask for their help, their contacts, their inspiration.
And remember, new businesses and new industries are being created daily. Maybe you’ll become a part of the next Google, the next Facebook or the next Sesame Workshop? Maybe you’ll discover a new way to teach a child to read?
And don’t be afraid to come to me. I’ll do whatever I can for any of you out there on Planet Preschool. Because we are still, first and foremost, a community. And, rest assured, when my time comes, I will be coming to you.