Tale of the pup

Innovative skein leads way to preschool TV boom

A floppy-eared, animated blue dog, strategically placed paw prints, and a live-action host in a striped rugby jersey: The “Blue’s Clues” formula seems innocent enough.

But since it launched on Nickelodeon 10 years ago, “Blue’s” has been crucial to the growth of both the channel and its Nick Jr. block.

Indeed, the cabler now boasts 90 million subscribers, and Nick Jr. is now home to seven of the top 10 preschool programs on commercial TV, including “Blue’s Clues,” “Dora the Explorer,” “Go, Diego, Go!,” “The Wonder Pets” and “The Backyardigans.”

Meanwhile, “Blue’s” has been at the forefront of a revolution in kids TV. With merchandisers targeting younger consumers, and annual worldwide sales of licensed products for preschoolers eclipsing an estimated $20 billion, preschool-targeted program blocks on other cable nets have proliferated. Many of these shows use an interactive, “call-and-response” style first perfected by “Blue’s Clues.”

In fact, even the pre-eminent of all modern preschool skeins, PBS’ “Sesame Street,” changed its format in 2002 to appeal to younger viewers, adding more interactive segments in a style very reminiscent of “Blue’s Clues.” Ironically, it was “Sesame Street” that provided one of the few templates for “Blue’s” to emulate when the latter launched in September 1996.

“‘Sesame Street’ was really the only player in town, the gold standard of excellence in children’s programming,” says Brown Johnson, exec creative director, Nickelodeon Preschool Television.

“Blue’s Clues” started out as a gameshow of sorts, “a program for kids with active minds,” Brown Johnson recalls. “We could put a lot of learning and curriculum into a show if kids thought they were a really important part of the action.”

More interactive than competitive, “Blue’s” premise is simple: Show host Steve (and later, Joe) talks directly to the audience of 2- to 5-year-old viewers, asking for their help when he needs to figure something out. The “clues” refer to paw prints left by Blue to guide Steve/Joe in solving the day’s puzzle, always with the assistance of a “handy-dandy notebook” and oversized “thinking chair.”

“Our big thing was the interactivity,” says Angela Santomero, the show’s co-creator, executive producer and head writer. With a master’s degree in developmental psychology, Santomero says she came to TV “through the backdoor” to develop the “Blue’s Clues” concept with executive producer and director of design Traci Paige Johnson and producer-director Todd Kessler. Their intention, she says, was to create a hit show “that kids could learn from but they wouldn’t necessarily know they were learning.”

From this arose a phenomenon. Syndicated in 120 countries and translated into 15 languages, “Blue’s Clues” has even been reformatted with local hosts and characters in the U.K. and Korea.

And even more important in the preschool-programming realm — which isn’t the best place on TV for ad revenue — “Blue’s” has generated huge homevid and licensing revenues.

There’s also been plenty of zeitgeist penetration.

The departure of original host Steve Burns in 2001 generated outlandish rumors and a Time magazine story. And there’s even a section on the impact of “Blue’s Clues” in Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, “The Tipping Point,” in which the author ties increases in children’s literacy to the show.

Indeed, as myriad research in recent years has centered on the negative impacts of TV on preschoolers, “Blue’s” has deftly managed to establish itself as a source of enrichment.

“Barney & Friends” and “Teletubbies” — which also were spawned in the mid-’90s — were indeed child-centric, Santomero explains. But “Blue’s” offered an alternative. The differences, she says, were as straightforward as “literally just asking kids what they think and giving them more time to answer questions.”

Nickelodeon was also the first network to experiment with a repeating programming philosophy, rerunning the same “Blue’s” episode five days in a row, to encourage retention.

Perhaps the series’ most notable achievement is its longevity in a realm in which audience members grow up and move on. “Blue’s” evolved over its 130-plus episode arc, with early shows focused on basics like colors and numbers, and later programs tackling topics ranging from math and physics to anatomy and outer space.

And with the introduction of the “Blue’s Room” segment several years ago — in which Blue morphs into a puppet and talks — Blue even found a voice.

This January, “Blue’s Room” will be spun into a stand-alone series, extending a “Blue’s” franchise that’s been out of production since 2004 (repeats of the flagship series have been programmed on Nick since then).

Further sparking the franchise on its 10th birthday will be Sunday’s hourlong primetime Nickelodeon special, “Meet Blue’s Baby Brother,” which will meld the cut-out animated world of the original “Blue’s Clues” with the puppet-themed world of the “Blue’s Room” spinoff. (Last Thursday, Nick also ran the 12-minute retrospective, “Behind the Clues: 10 Years With Blue,” which was produced by VH1’s “Behind the Music” staff.)

Meanwhile, “Blue’s” remains a vital part of Nick’s broadband plan. The parent-oriented Nickjr.com — which averages 6.2 million unique visitors each month — still boasts a dedicated “Blue’s” section after 10 years.

According to Santomero, “Blue’s” wouldn’t have lasted into its 11th year if its producers hadn’t listened to the aud. “Feedback from kids and parents helped the storylines evolve,” she says.

Brown Johnson agrees: “Your audience basically tells you how to make a show be successful. If a show doesn’t work, you’re not listening hard enough.”

With so much competition now in the preschool space, will “Blue’s Room” extend the franchise for another decade?

“The more there is,” Brown Johnson asserts, “the more competition there is for Nick Jr. to remain the best.”