Back To School Special: Developing Children’s Programming
Developing quality content for any television show requires many skilled individuals. Developing quality content for children’s television requires additional components beyond plot and style.
“It’s an interesting challenge,” said Nancy Kanter, SVP, Playhouse Disney Worldwide. “How do you service the entertainment value: having quality characters and production values, while ensuring that it does have an educational component servicing the needs of the audience?”
In her role as Senior Vice President of Playhouse Disney Worldwide, Kanter is responsible for the brand’s creative content on a global basis. She oversees the development and production of all long and short-form programming, as well as the marketing and branding of Disney Playhouse productions and products. Attaining such a position was not a goal she originally sought.
“It was serendipitous,” said Kanter of her career in children’s programming. “Once I became a mom, I became aware of what my three kids were watching, and not just what they were watching, but how they were watching and consuming things. It became more important to me.”
Having worked in production for a number of years primarily as an editor, Kanter had the opportunity to produce an ABC Afterschool Special. Prior to landing the role of Vice President of Original Programming for the Disney Channel in 2001, Kanter served as Executive Producer for “Sesame Street” and was president of Bluecow.com, a children’s entertainment internet site.
“It was a series of delightful coincidences that led me on this path,” said Kanter. “I’m really attracted to the challenge of making entertaining programming for children.”
Entertainment is the primary ingredient necessary in the balance of selecting children’s programming.
“A program needs to present something a child will want to connect with and visit every day,” said Kanter. “It should be exciting and original. A child should want to make the program’s characters part of their world.”
Another key ingredient is in the area of growth the program offers.
“When watching a program, I ask myself, ‘what’s the value, what’s the take away?’” said Kanter. “What can we show children that they can take with them after viewing? For instance, in ‘Handy Manny,’ there are opportunities that present healthy eating and maintaining an active lifestyle. In ‘Jungle Junction’ the characters that live in the jungle have wheels instead of feet. This makes these unusual creatures very relatable. Lessons about the environment and recycling are packaged in a unique way that is very digestible. This opens up a new world to kids.”
Growth does not always come from formalized lessons but also through the exploration of something a child may not have immediate access to.
“’Little Einstein’ is a show I’m so pleased about,” said Kanter. “This program provides a child things they may not ever be able to see or experience. Parents really appreciate this aspect. ‘Little Einstein’ was built to be the next step up after ‘Baby Einstein,’ a series of videos and books that provide images and sounds. ‘Little Einstein’ presents characters and character development.”
Because Playhouse Disney Worldwide reaches a broad range of international viewers, Kanter is very focused on how well the program will play globally. Programs are translated into 155 languages. Each story has to remain consistent in translation and contain information that is applicable to any nationality or style of living. In addition to the storytelling values, she also is very aware of how the program appears stylistically.
“We try to make our programming less U.S.- centric,” said Kanter. “The goal is to have a global piece and present a great deal of diversity. We want to make sure the program reflects a diverse world.”
Once a program is acquired, consultants and educational development experts are brought on board to work with the writers, the production team, and the animators. A team of researchers will then hold focus groups with pre-schoolers to gage their responses to the material.
“We use storymatics,” said Kanter. “They’re visual representations of the characters and storylines. We test these with children before story development is completed to see if they liked the story, if they could follow it, and what they responded to. We make changes based on their reactions. We’ll continue these throughout the story’s development. We do a lot of research.”
The majority of children’s programming is based on animation.
“Live-action is challenging,” said Kanter. “You have to be careful of not making the program too Americanized. It also causes a problem with dubbing. You want to look for styles that blend nicely in the global community.”
Kanter has also been integrating new media formats into the programming model. Many families have internet access, and Kanter sees the benefit of utilizing the mediums available through the web as a benefit to the audience.
“Many kids are able to navigate the basics of a computer by the age of three,” said Kanter. “Parents are more comfortable with their children on the internet. I’m very interested in making a connection with the online audience, and providing them something really unique.”
One recent innovation was an iPhone application connected to “Special Agent Oso.” When a child watched “Special Agent Oso” – a program revolving around the main character finding clues that help him achieve everyday tasks such as cleaning his room or writing a letter – the application forwarded a message from Oso to the child, congratulating the child on helping him achieve his mission and encouraging the child’s hard work.
“We had over 200,000 sign-ups for that application,” said Kanter. “It was really successful. We’re always looking for different distribution methods. All these different forms of communication can be used to develop creativity in synchronicity. It’s all another form of media.”