Everything You Need to Know to Make Great Children’s Television

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On May 23rd the Children’s Media Association, The Producers Guild of America, and Sesame Workshop hosted Everything You Need to Know to Make Great Children’s Television. The all-star panel of notable children’s media names garnered plenty of buzz and excitement ahead of the event (the event sold out right away!), which included President of WonderWhy Consulting LLC and former National President of CMA, Latoye Adams; Chief Creative Officer of 9 Story Media Group and Co-Creator of Blue’s Clues, Angela Santomero; PBS Vice President of Children’s Programming, Linda Simensky; Head Writer for Sesame Workshop, Ken Scarborough; and Sesame Workshop’s Executive Vice President, Brown Johnson as our moderator for the evening. The group was later joined by Elmo performer and puppeteer, Ryan Dillon. The evening began with mingling, a delicious food bar of meatball sandwiches and bowls provided by Amazeballs (shout out to the most fun and delicious catering a girl could ever dream of after a long day at work), and a photo booth with Elmo.

Once everyone was filled to the brim with meatballs and chatter, the talk officially kicked off with an introduction by Johnson and a question posed to the panel about what makes great programming for kids. Simensky began by suggesting that for pitches at least, it comes down to a magic formula of great characters, stories, and designs – and a good title can seal the deal. What doesn’t sell are stories where she falls asleep in the middle or when the pitch is far too long. Bad designs are, of course, not helpful, but if the story is there she keeps in mind that the designs can be changed.

Santomero described her method for creating great programming, which is like baking a seven layer cake. She shared that the seven layer cake should look simple on the outside, where you don’t notice or think about the many layers of science and curriculum that went into making a great show. Additionally, the storytelling and curriculum created should feel distinct to the show it was made for. “If a script can work for any show, it’s not a good script,” added Santomero. “It should beg the questions: why this show? Why now?”

Next, Johnson posed a question to Adams about how she convinces writers and creators that it’s worth it to research their shows and projects. “By the time I’m with them, they already know they need research,” said Adams. She also shared that the children’s media community is full of intentional, smart creatives that are well aware of the importance of research in their work. They see research as an aid in making bigger decisions and also in making the editing and creating process easier. Simensky added that “research is like the icing on the seven layer cake…you are asking for kids’ time and you want to give them back something good.” Simensky shared that she had seen test pilots not do well in front of kids in focus groups, and the results helped to provide proof to the creators that things needed to change. Santomero, whose career started as a research intern at Nickelodeon added, “at the end of the 22 or 11 minutes, kids should be able to play with the goal or mission we set out for them.”

Pivoting from the topic of research, Johnson next directed a question to Scarborough about his experiences starting the writing process for new programs, and if he uses filters when thinking about the approach. Scarborough explained how every show is different and requires different things of him. He shared how the process of writing for such young ages (as low as 2-year-olds) means extracting your own expectations of what makes a story funny or thrilling, and understanding that the story shouldn’t necessarily grip the writer, because ultimately it’s not for the writer. He’s also found through many years in the industry that a story shouldn’t be overly complicated and involve too many jokes – instead, you have to focus on the storytelling so even the youngest kid can follow along and be interested.

Johnson next brought to the table a question to the panel on the preference of an ensemble cast vs. a hero/main character leading a show. Santomero stated that even within an ensemble, she always wants that hero or title character that we always look to. In most cases, it’s helpful to have an identifiable lead character that is supported by a cast of friends, as it helps tell kids where to focus their attention. Simensky noted that what’s most important is that the characters are each unique and special. She has seen pitches with a bunch of main characters, each named after a color or other generic identifier, and the members of the group aren’t really different from each other. “Those shows are really hard in terms of keeping track of characters…if I can’t do it, kids can’t,” said Simensky. Adams spoke to her experience on Backyardigans, where she saw an ensemble cast where each character made unique contributions to the story. As the problem unfolded around the group, characters’ unique skills contributed to solving the problems at hand in a way only they could. She noted that this is a good example of why it’s important not to put rules on the creative process, because anything can work when done well.

Talk next shifted to devices and predictions for what the next phase of entertainment will be like for kids. Simensky looked to her experience with the PBS KIDS Games app, which “has exploded,” as a sign of kids’ desire to continue their experience with the show in a deeper way. Games get kids even closer to playing a character and being in their world. From the research end of things, Adams has found that these days kids experience entertainment and learning from the same sources of content on multiple devices.

The talk next launched into the Q&A segment with the audience, which covered questions on pitching, development, and character building. The discussion closed with another introduction, where Dillon took to the panel to discuss his road to Sesame. Dillon shared that his love of puppets led him to become a puppeteer at 13. Loving the world of song, dance, and performance, Dillon found that puppeteering spoke to all of these interests, and that being a puppeteer allowed him to combine them all in one career. Dillon now performs Elmo on Sesame Street and produces online puppet content with his creative partner, Mark Gale, via DillonGale Studios.

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The night was capped with Dillon giving the audience a quickie tutorial on how to be a puppeteer. Armed with our hand peeper puppets, the audience practiced holding up our arms for 15 seconds (which was harder than you would think), getting our puppet to make eye contact, and lip syncing. Filled with the hope and dream of becoming future puppeteers…or at least entertaining our co-workers with our newly learned skills the next day, the evening ended with networking and chatting.

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