As NASA’s groundbreaking confirmation of water on Mars continues to make headlines around the world this week, PBS KIDS has embarked on a science-based mission of its own, thanks to a newly secured multi-million dollar Ready to Learn grant from the US Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement.
Announced in early September, the five-year grant aims to reach disadvantaged kids by providing US$19 million in year one to PBS KIDS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to fund science and literacy-based programming, mobile apps and online games.
The grant comes on the heels of two previous Ready to Learn grants awarded to PBS KIDS and CPB that put the spotlight on literacy and math, respectively, and led to the multiplatform success of math series PEG + CAT and Odd Squad.
With the focus now squarely on science, PBS KIDS’ popular 2D-animated program The Cat in the Hat Knows A Lot About That! and upcoming CGI-animated show Ready Jet Go! will both get a funding boost for new content, which is great news for the shows respective co-producers Random House Children’s Entertainment and Wind Dancer Films.
VP of PBS KIDS Digital Sara DeWitt and CPB’s SVP of education and children’s content operations Debra Sanchez give iKids the lowdown on the latest funding injection.
With the new funding cycle focused on science, how did you determine which shows to highlight?
DeWitt: Because the solicitation specifically looks at science, we went to our producer base and thought about which properties we have right now that could fit nicely into a science curriculum that we would develop for the grant. We want to make sure the curriculum will be very organic to the IP and not forced on top of it. As Cat in the Hat is very squarely a science show, we felt it was a good match, plus we already wanted to do more episodes with Random (the new grant will support season three). With Wind Dancer, our brand new show Ready Jet Go! will debut on February 15, and we’re thrilled that the grant will help support additional content development including some digital experimentation.
What’s PBS KIDS’ strategy for developing new properties supported by the grant?
DeWitt: When it comes to new series, we will be looking for some new IP. The grant period begins today, so we’ll start working on the development of our curriculum framework around science, which will give us the roadmap for what we need and where the gaps are. Then we’ll begin issuing requests for proposals for science series, short or long form, and we’d like to do something around literacy that is focused on informational text, but we’re still working on it. Short-form content is certainly something we’ll be thinking about a lot in this round because through video apps and other streaming services we’re seeing a real interest in this type of content.
Will you be looking for new partners?
DeWitt: We are open to new production partners. Five years ago, we issued an RSP for a new math IP, and that is how we found PEG + CAT (9 Story Media Group) and Odd Squad (Sinking Ship Entertainment). Both came from producers we had never worked with before, so it was an exciting process for us to meet some new talent.
How will PBS KIDS evolve and measure the learning elements embedded in its new digital content?
DeWitt: Over the last five years, we’ve done a lot of experimentation across platforms thinking about transmedia storytelling and how to take IP from broadcast like Peg + Cat to a web and mobile experience and make those things intersect nicely. We completed a lot of research around what happens to a child’s learning gains when you carefully sequence those experiences together. We examined the back-end analytics to determine how kids were progressing through a game experience and how it correlates to their understanding of the math concept. We’ll continue to do this kind of work and also customize experiences for kids based on where they are in their understanding of the concepts, and better connect and communicate with parents across digital. We’ve been in testing the last few weeks on changes to our mobile experiences with video and games, and when looking at the advancements over the last two years in what we’re able to glean from data, I expect we’ll be able to understand a lot more and be much more predictive in the future.
Do you have any new partners on the analytics front?
DeWitt: On the last round, we worked with UCLA’s Cresst Group on some of the analytics work and they should be a partner moving forward. We’ll also be working with the School of Education at Boston University and our research partner is EDC (Education Development Center). They help us better understand what all the data means and how we can use it to best advance children’s learning.
How significant is the funding, from a tech perspective, to helping disadvantaged kids in high-need communities?
Sanchez: The Department of Education recognizes the value of technology and CPB’s ability to reach large numbers of kids and families through our national platform. And the local connection really helps get tech resources to families that have the greatest needs. We partner with our local stations and they, in turn, take the content and work with local housing authorities and local libraries to provide the experiences.
Nielsen recently confirmed that PBS stations reach more children ages two to eight, and more children in low-income homes, than any other children’s TV network. As digital grows, do you anticipate any platform strategy changes for rolling out new content?
DeWitt: We can’t minimize the importance of broadcast with this grant. Broadcast-only homes are still a large segment of the US, and traditional TV is the way most low-income families are receiving their media. While it’s easy for us to say everyone has moved on to streaming, it really isn’t the case. For launching content, we have to find the right mix to reach as many kids as we can. In the case of Odd Squad, we launched some content digital-first, but it was a simultaneous broadcast and digital launch. The same approach is planned for Ready Jet Go!