New tricks help old dog stay on air

'Blue' listens to auds when rolling with changes

Periwinkle came to town, Steve went to college, and Blue morphed into a puppet, but after 10 years, the “Blue’s Clues” franchise has remained one of TV’s top draws for the little people ages 2-5 demo.

“Characters come and go — we even swapped hosts — but the relationship to the viewer has always remained the same,” says Steve Burns, who was the first “Blue’s Clues” human host, and one of its creative consultants, before setting off to pursue an indie rock career.

Catering to an aud that grows up and out of its programming preferences faster than it does its shoes, “Blue’s Clues” has managed to roll right along with the changes.

Take Burns’ final episode, “Meet Joe,” which shuttled Steve off to college and introduced new host Donovan Patton — that 2002 episode drew 1.9 million preschoolers, and a 47 share of that aud.

The show “was a well-oiled machine by the time I got onboard,” Patton concedes. “It was pretty much the same crew from the very beginning. They had the same gaffer, the same photographers — (cinematographer) Skip Roessel was still there.”

Now comes perhaps the toughest transition of all. The flagship “Blue’s Clues” series — which has actually been out of production for a few years — will spin off its “Blue’s Room” segment into a stand-alone series in January. (Nick Jr. will also feature an hourlong “Blue’s Clues” primetime special, “Meet Blue’s Baby Brother” on Sunday.)

“Blue’s” creators think they can maintain the franchise’s popularity by sustaining the same production methodology that’s worked so well for them from the beginning.

The littlest focus group

For each episode, producers schlep a “storybook” version of the script to private and public preschools, then powwow over the responses.

“The kids will give us feedback about what we’re looking for,” notes Angela Santomero, the show’s co-

creator, exec producer and head writer. “Are the kids mastering these concepts? Do they understand the story? Are they really being challenged?”

Notably, it was input from the tots that led to “Blue’s Room” — they told the producers they wanted the show’s key canine character, Blue, to talk. So in 2004, “Blue’s Clues” launched the segment in which Blue morphs from cut-out animation to puppet and beckons viewers into her playroom.

It was risky, Santomero notes: “We sat down again with that key team that’s been together 10 years, and we talked about it for a very long time.”

Nick already has 10 episodes of “Blue’s Room” in the can. And after a decade of listening to their aud, “Blue’s” producers have new ideas as to how to approach their new series. One plan is to broaden the range of subject matter they cover.

“We’re still kindergarten-readiness, but we’re expanding the curriculum to be more open-ended,” Santomero explains. “Instead of, ‘Show me where the square is,’ we’re asking, ‘What do you think?’ ”