'Blue's' pioneering style affects preschool shows

Is it the paws that define “Blue’s Clues,” or is it the pause?

Previously, children’s educational shows presented a one-way conversation to their youthful aud, but “Blue’s Clues” revolutionized the genre by frequently pausing the action, waiting for its viewers to respond to cues and engaging them in virtual conversation.

“We were trying to break through the idea that television is a passive medium by having a show that kids are involved in,” says Brown Johnson, executive creative director of Nickelodeon Preschool Television.

In the decade since “Blue’s Clues” premiered, this innovative approach has been employed by other preschool-targeted programs: Not only do Nick programs like “Dora the Explorer” and “Go, Diego, Go!” feature these interactive elements, but so do Disney Channel programs like “Stanley,” “JoJo’s Circus” and “The Doodlebops,” just to name a few. Even the gold standard of preschool TV programs, PBS’ “Sesame Street,” has incorporated such interactivity.

These elements have also yielded numerous accolades from critics and academics.

Among other studies, a report by the U. of Alabama Institute for Communication Research found that “Blue’s Clues” viewers “performed significantly better than nonviewers on standardized measures of important cognitive skills and abilities.”

The series’ interactive bent gestated from exhaustive research into children’s viewing and learning habits.

Even the length of pauses was carefully honed — long enough to give the youngest time to think, short enough for the oldest not to get bored.

During the initial tests before audiences, the pause had to survive the scrutiny of skeptical adult viewers.

“It’s funny how, if you wait just that half a beat longer, you’ll usually get your answer … and just how imperative that was,” says series co-creator and ¬†executive producer Traci Paige Johnson. “If (parents) didn’t watch it with a kid, they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s too slow.’ But if they watched it with a kid, ‘Oh, I get it, I get it.”’

Ultimately, the pause exemplifies the show’s overall success in merging two seemingly irreconcilable priorities: slowing down the pacing to encourage learning while remaining entertaining and fun.

“My dream was to create an educational television show that kids would want to watch and that would become an entertainment hit so they wouldn’t even know that they were learning,” says Angela Santomero, series co-creator and executive producer.

In this respect, “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” — bellwether programs for more than a quarter of a century before “Blue’s Clues” — were palpable influences.¬†

But after testing and retesting “Blue’s Clues,” the creators found no incentive to adhere to the style of presenting one sketch or snippet after another.

Instead, the choice for “Blue’s Clues” became to tell one story, beginning to end, camera moving left-to-right like reading a storybook, transitions from scene to scene as obvious as the turning of a page.

“Preschoolers will not only sit and watch three, four, five minutes at a time, but if you make something interesting within the context of their world and their life, they will latch,” explains Dr. Alice Wilder, the show’s research director. “In terms of entertainment and storytelling, we knew they would watch a 30-minute show that they would interact with.”

Added Brown Johnson: “I think the think-along narrative, where you have a story that’s very relatable … and along the way you play several games, so you feel like you’re helping Steve and helping Blue so they couldn’t move on without you, it’s empowering.”

Eventually, “Blue’s Clues” became so confident in its approach that the show’s execs grew more ambitious with its curriculum, moving from a “crash course in kindergarten readiness skills,” as Santomero described the first season, to subjects like astronomy and physics.

None of this would have been possible without the pause. In fact, one of Traci Paige Johnson’s favorite “Blue’s Clues” moments involves the pause to surpass all pauses.

“It was a time episode, where we’re counting time, and we’re sitting there for one minute,” she says. “And as a kid, you really get a sense of what one minute is. I thought that was very revolutionary and powerful and just sort of epitomized what ‘Blue’s Clues’ was.”

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