Spotlight Interview: Tom Ascheim

Blogger’s Note: While we work on rolling out a brand new and improved newsletter, the CMA blog will play host to our “Spotlight Interview”. This month we feature Tom Ascheim, Chief Strategy Officer at Sesame Workshop & EVP Sesame Learning.  Tom will be our guest for the Red Chair Series, taking place Thursday, February 28th.  Make sure to check out the link and sign up!

Tom Ascheim has been a pioneer of children’s media, from television to digital, pre-school to teens, cable to indie. He has spent more than twenty-five years in the media and technology world and is a unique and beloved leader in the children’s media industry.  Prior to joining Sesame Workshop, he was the CEO of Newsweek, Inc. where he led the relaunch of the magazine and website and spearheaded the successful sale of the company to Sidney Harman and Barry Diller. Prior to Newsweek, Ascheim ran Nickelodeon’s multi-billion dollar TV group, overseeing Nickelodeon, Nick@Nite, Nick Jr., Noggin, Nicktoons and The N.

You got involved in children’s media early in your career. Why did you choose to specialize in children’s media?

I got my first real job right out of business school at MTV.  I was handed the children’s side of things at Nickelodeon, and I actually had a secret, underground passion for children’s media, so it was the appropriate place to be.How do you stay current with the rapidly changing technology and products available today?I like to think that I do stay current.  I read as much as I can and play with machines as much as I can.  I have three kids and they tend to be awfully good native users of technology and brutally honest, so I can ask, “Is this something just old people use now?”  So my advice would be, find a young person!

Looking at children’s media today, where are we succeeding? Where are we struggling?

When I started there was just one children’s channel, and people wondered why we needed a channel solely devoted to children.  Since then, there’s been an ever greater quantity of children’s media–not just tv, but music, movies, etc.  So we’re succeeding by making more and better.  However, similar to adult media, a lot of it has become formulaic or just a spin-off of something else.  We have to keep innovating and finding that creative spark.

What do you think accounts for the continuing popularity of the Sesame brand?

It’s in many ways a simple formula that has endured: the show and its characters teach and delight in that teaching. Our characters reflect real kids and adults and they make it easy for our audience to connect with the show. Though the formula is more than forty years old, we keep the show fresh with new episodes each year and by always evolving to address relevant everyday issues for kids today.

Although still under development, could you share with us some plans for the Sesame Learning initiative?

The context of Sesame Street’s development in 1969 was that approximately 30% of children were not ready for kindergarten.  The approach was to try and reach these children in their homes.  Since Sesame’s development, that 30% figure has remained mostly steady due to a number of socioeconomic factors.  However, now, almost 70% of young children are not at home–they may be in daycare or a pre-K program.  So the goal of Sesame Learning is to take the essence of Sesame Street and bring it into the classroom.

If you could live in any TV program, game, or book, what would it be?

So I could be with my children, I would have to pick Harry Potter.  We would have to figure out which house and which wand, but I think that would be the place to be.

 Complete this sentence.  My media guilty pleasure is…

Grey’s Anatomy.  My wife is a doctor and it’s much more interesting to watch with her shouting out a running commentary.