There are some doctors who treat the whole body, some who treat just one part of the body, and then there are those who treat the ears, nose and throat. The reason for aggregating these three unlikely body parts is, I assume, that they’re all connected by some internal plumbing which requires that they be viewed as a whole or, at the very least, as kindred spirits. It’s their underlying and unseen connection that explains why, for example, when you’re on a plane, you can hold your nose to pop your ears.
Which brings me to preschool television. I used to think I was just in the business of making and selling preschool shows. But I was wrong. I now appreciate that the making of preschool shows cannot be seen in isolation any more than your nose can be seen in isolation from the rest of your face. And, to take the metaphor one step further, to be a maker of preschool shows without a grasp of the other related disciplines would be as bad a career move as being a doctor who stubbornly treats the nose and only the nose.
These days, in order to survive in what’s left of the preschool television business, a creator/producer must be at least reasonably well-versed in the three legs of the tripod upon which all preschool shows are now impaled: Production, Distribution and Licensing. These three areas are like sisters who do not much like one another but are forced to sit around the table each day and have soup.
Why don’t the three sisters get along? Well, if you’re the sister who cares about producing quality shows, then you are naturally annoyed by the sister in licensing who is endlessly trying to influence your creations by asking you to add vehicles and make your shows “gender specific.” (The majority of toy people and retailers still openly equate pink with girls and blue with boys, all the while bemoaning the stereotypes that they themselves perpetuate.)
And, if you’re the licensing sister, you are annoyed by your sister in production because: 1) She feels herself to be creatively superior to you, and; 2) She lives in total denial that the only reason she still has a job producing TV shows is because you (or someone like you) think there’s potential to create and sell her show’s licensed products. (After all, even if she manages to scrape together her budget for season one, who else is going to finance her second season? Certainly not your sister in distribution.)
And both the production and licensing sisters can’t stomach their distribution sister because she’s at the mercy of the world’s broadcasters who, for the most part, operate like personality cults, making any attempt to figure out their programming needs harder than catching fish with your elbows. Despite the fact that apps and “transmedia” have become a sort of St. Jude for many properties, providing hope to the hopeless, we still live in a world in which, at least for now, the broadcaster is king. (And, if you don’t believe me, just ask your sister in licensing what will happen to your brand if you don’t have at least one of the world’s top four broadcasters airing your show every day.)
Though I’m an indie to the bone, I’d say the safe money these days is on (in no particular order) Disney, Nickelodeon and Turner. Why? Because at those companies the three sisters of Production, Distribution and Licensing all work for the same boss and can therefore have a more or less unified strategy. And, unlike the rest of us, they don’t need to form messy alliances between producers, distributors, and licensors, most of whom have a hard enough time organizing a conference call much less organizing a global brand strategy. Even though the big three may be largely uninspired and corporate places, at least they show up with a real plan and enough cash to roll the dice on a children’s property if they happen to really like it. The bottom line is that they’re the only ones who have their ears, nose and throat on the same actual head.
Given all of this, why do I remain hopeful and plucky despite the fact that I’m an indie in a world that eats indies for lunch? Because, as I’ve said in the past, I believe the next five years will leave only two types of companies standing: The really big ones and the zealots. The big ones will succeed for the reasons I have just mentioned and the zealots will succeed because we’ll be nimble, resourceful and relentlessly creative. True indies will always be in business as long as there are audiences who crave something new that cannot be conceived of in a conference room or produced in an animation factory. Fortunately, the tender hearts of our young audience still require the tender hearts of truly independent show makers. But even a zealot must learn to respect his three sisters.