It seems like once a week I get a call from a client who says, sheepishly, “We showed your bible to our Consumer Products team and they would like clarification on a few points: What are your show’s play patterns? Do you see it as a ‘boy’s property’ or ‘a girl’s property?’ Which licensing categories do you anticipate having the most potential? And how would you feel about adding a few more vehicles?”
Nobody even pretends that we’re making anything other than toy commercials these days. Popular wisdom now dictates that unless there’s at least some chance that the toys will hit the jackpot, why make the show in the first place? So, not surprisingly, many of the talented creative executives who once helped guide the fragile development of preschool shows (and protect show creators from the really unhelpful notes) have been laid off or marginalized. They’ve been replaced by the new sheriffs in town, the licensing and CP teams, most of whom are shockingly uncreative and all of whom repeat the same predictable mantras of play patterns, more vehicles and repeatable backgrounds, as if every show should be the same. The end result of this unfortunate power shift is an entire generation of the most uninspired, derivative and unwatchable preschool shows ever created. And, ironically, these shows don’t even sell toys. After all, there hasn’t been a real preschool “hit” since “Dora”
When I was in Sydney at SPAA last month I sat in on a panel about TV news and the responsibility of public broadcasters. Lord David Puttnam from the UK made a very interesting point that the US news organizations were mostly interested in creating consumers whereas the BBC still hopes to create responsible and socially aware citizens. He lamented that if news ever became a wholly commercial enterprise, this would eventually lead to the collapse of democracy as we know it. And he was serious.
I guess I have a similar apocalyptic view of the preschool TV industry. We seem to have left the golden era in which innovation, education, quality writing and great design were considered the most critical elements of a good preschool show. And we’ve entered a period in which speculating on sales in the toy aisle trumps all other concerns. Even the preschool shows that air on the world’s public broadcasters are dependent on this promise of toy revenue in order to secure financing for multiple seasons.
So, what’s a naïve, idealistic and big mouthed show creator to do? After all, I need to get my shows funded just like everybody else? Do I forsake animation budgets and start producing community theatre back on Cape Cod? Do I find some common ground with those who prefer knobby wheels and dressing up to character development and story? Or do I simply surrender to the status quo and pitch “My Little Dress Up Train” or “Roll-y the Dinosaur” at KidScreen?
Well, for what it’s worth, here’s the approach that I’ve settled upon, and I’ll tell you up front that it’s highly flawed and full of big compromises. In fact, I have no doubt it will disappoint my friends J.J. Johnson and Cate McQuillan, both of whom I consider to be the standard bearers of quality and integrity in our troubled industry. But I am less courageous, less defiant, and carry a bigger overhead than they do, so here is what I have come up with, my own personal preschool TV policy of appeasement.
I now try to imagine that the shows we make at Little Airplane are like children, my children, and each one has a different personality and therefore requires a different parenting strategy. For example, some shows are delicate and unique and I need to protect them from the bullies they might encounter along the Croisette or in Vegas. Others are like rebellious teenagers and they have already hooked up with some unsavory characters and, for them, I just try to make sure they make it home safely every night without too many tattoos, bruises or STD’s. And others have grown up and decided that the US is as boorish a country as Europe says it is, and they’re moving to Canada or the UK or Australia where they have some nice, cultured friends.
In short, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach to raising my eclectic brood of preschool shows, I have opted (out of necessity rather than choice) for a flexible, customized approach with each one. None of the approaches are perfect but, as the saying goes on one parenting website, “We’re not perfect, we’re parents.” And I do love all of my children, even the ones I don’t like anymore.
So, I will continue to hold the creative line on certain Little Airplane shows while agreeing to bend my principles into various pretzel-like shapes on others. Am I proud of this? No. But, like my father who made it out of Germany during WW II, I’m a survivor. I live by my wits and I pick my battles very carefully, which is really just another way of saying that I decide when to swallow my pride and add a vehicle very carefully. Perhaps there will come a day when I can rise above all this compromise and make only the lovely, bizarre, and completely untoyetic shows that drift through my mind each day like happy dirigibles. But that day is not today. So, as Andre Breitman pointed out to me this week with grim satisfaction, I’m now in the trenches with everyone else, reading about co-production treaties, smiling during meetings with licensing people, sucking up to toy companies, and pretending I care about Walmart.
I guess I just hope that at the end of the day, I mean at the real end of the day, I’ll be able to look back on my career and feel that I’ve made at least a few really good shows that are still beloved by kids and their families. Because, regardless of the economics, I still believe in my heart that kids deserve to see high quality, well-made shows that are not just Trojan Horses designed to seed toy lines. At least that’s what I learned during my decade at “Sesame Street” from people like Arlene Sherman, Valeria Lovelace, Norman Stiles and Lisa Simon. Oh, and there’s one more thing that I hope will be true on judgment day, that I will have made as few crappy shows as possible.