From the ages of eight to 18, children spend more than seven hours a day looking at screens. Studies indicate kids now have access to an average of 12 screens per household. And the multi-billion dollar children’s programming industry has followed the evolution of preschool programming from a few staples like “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” to a frenzy of Paw Patrols, Peppa Pigs and Dora the Explorers — with lunchboxes, action figures and myriad other merchandise to match.
Creating relevant and educational content against that level of competition and the evolving consumption habits of frazzled parents and their kiddos is no small task, especially in the preschool space. But Angela Santomero, 9 Story’s newly minted chief creative officer, may have cracked the code through a cocktail of research, interaction and education.
Santomero has an impressive resume as the creator of several established series (including “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” “Blue’s Clues” and “Super Why!”) over the span of her 25-year career. In her new position she currently counts 100 or so series under her slate, including Netflix’s “Charlie’s Colorforms City” and Amazon’s “Creative Galaxy.” She’s also written two books: “Preschool Clues,” which helps parents navigate a screen-filled world to separate the educational from the brightly packaged fodder, and “Radical Kindness,” a revolutionary novel that dropped March 5 and examines the life-changing benefits that come when adults practice kindness — something she’s been incorporating in her children’s programs for years. A PBS special featuring Santomero and that latter novel airs this month.
“PBS said to me, ‘One of the things we noticed about the foundation of all your shows is kindness, and we think the world needs that now more than ever,’” she says. “I happened to have a ton of research on the science behind kindness, and so we started talking more and organically the special and the book started to come together.”
Here, Variety talks with Santomero, who also holds a master’s degree in developmental psychology, to speak more about transforming research into relevant children’s programming and the challenges and misconceptions facing the industry today.
How do you go about transforming a slew of children’s research into something targeted at adults as you do in the “Kindness” special?
The idea behind anything that I do from a foundational standpoint is that it has to have a development aspect to it. Whether it’s specifically for preschoolers or a little bit older in the five-to-eight category or even six-to-11, the research is the same. I’m constantly reading and looking at everything across-the-board from adults and parents, too. What is it that people care about? What do we need more of in the world? That inspires me to create something and then I make sure that it makes good television for the audience that I’m working for. … I draw inspiration from everything. I definitely have that research love and that research heart, and then we also do a ton of formative research as we are creating a show so that the objective and mission of what we are creating is actually speaking to the audience that we’re targeting. So as we get older kids programming, or stuff for parents, or stuff for adults, I’ll have that same point of view where I know that it works. I know that what we’re seeing is also something that parents or adults want and so that helps.
What are some of the challenges that come with creating children’s programming that traditional creators of adult content might not face?
It started with “Blue’s Clues” in the sense that we also took an adult point-of-view and said, “Okay what inspires us that’s different and what can we do to shake things up?” Back in the day we were so inspired by Ferris Bueller or some of these adult movies like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” We were trying to look at things in that way and then creating this character that was a true “real” person, a live-action character that cared and had empathy and had a point-of-view. Again from an adult perspective, you can see this in terms of shows that adults love. They’re flawed, they have rich character development, and yet there’s a bond there. I use “Friends” as an example because even as an adult I want to sit on the couch with them and be part of Central Perk. It’s that same point-of-view when we are creating, there’s a way in which we need to script and storyboard and think about it when it comes to younger kids that we then employee after the bigger idea and initiative is set forth. The idea of legacy properties and looking at this from a boutique standpoint, even though now I’m in charge of a thousand-person company, it’s really about what’s going to make a statement out there and not just putting something on the air.
How do you sift through that creative process to ensure educational, quality programming?
When I go out and I speak I’m constantly talking to parents and sifting through content — it’s what drove me to write my first book. I kind of equate it to a healthy green smoothie. I look at engagement: Is your child engaged and are they interacting — not just physically interacting the way that you would with a “Blue’s Clues” or in that sense of speaking, but are they literally viewing and then wanting to go out and do? Also being a part of and immersed in that world, and then education. They’re learning from everything, so what is it that they’re learning? It’s not necessarily what you want them to be learning. So it’s just us sitting and thinking those things through.
In terms of parents, you don’t have to sit and watch everything with your preschooler. I am a working mom and I know that’s not possible, but understanding and knowing what our kids are watching, and reviewing or looking at some of the comments on social media or watching the first couple of episodes to know what is expected of your kid when they’re watching. What kind of language are they using, how they talk to the kid and the tone, what kind of humor, that kind of thing. If they say they’re teaching math, how are they approaching that and those kinds of things.
How does the research process for children’s programming compare to traditional programs?
The way we do research is different than the way a lot of other people use research. We don’t use it as a rubber stamp. My head of research is actually part of our process from the beginning, so there’s creative, and then there’s a development aspect to the work. We’re constantly incorporating a kid’s POV but with a creative vision in mind. We’re more respectful of writers and animators in the process. If you’re saying something will change the world, I want to see it change the world before we’re going to put it out there and on the air. That kind of research is how we stay ahead of the curve, and how we stay ahead of the competition, and how we make sure that our shows are also really highly rated for the networks or the places that we’re creating them for. If I’m going to tell you that this teaches kids to read, it had better do it.
When you create content do you keep a co-viewing audience in mind or is it always kid-first?
I definitely have always talked to the kid first. It is not something that I do with regards to trying to get the parents involved. I know that if the child is involved, and interested, and active, and engaged that parents will come. I’m really trying to put the children first. I want them in on the joke. Like with “Daniel Tiger” we use socio-emotional musical strategies and I want them to remember those strategies so that they can use them — which is what we’re hearing every day from parents, that kids are using these strategies. That’s really first and foremost. And yes, if you were a Fred Rogers fan you can see Daniel zip up his little sweater and put on his sneakers and that reminds you of Fred.
Our jokes are funny to preschoolers. Or to kids six-to-11. We’re really super serving the audience that we’re talking to, which I think is why our ratings are so high all the time. We know that if the kids aren’t laughing, or they’re not invested, or they’re not watching, we know in our formative research and we fix it. Our writers are one-of-a-kind in the sense that they want that feedback and there’s no ego involved. They’re constantly re-working and taking a look to make sure that it’s working, in addition to the animators. Everyone is super, super invested.
How has the growing number of screens in an average household influenced you in terms of content?
Content is always content, and content is always king. And not all content is created equal, but all screens are. Basically it’s another place to either play your favorite show, watch your favorite show, or to be part of the world of your favorite show and your content. We’ve always taken the approach that we want to be everywhere kids are and so when we even first did “Blue’s Clues” and now with the new “Blue’s Clues” reboot we’re talking about the extension. How would you do a live show so that kids can actually hug Blue? How do you do a publishing line so that it’s as educational as the TV show? And then when you’re looking at a million screens we’re like, “Okay what works for short-form or what works for long-form?”
It always starts with the content, and it always starts with the show. For us it starts with the story and everybody has their own point of entry as a creator in terms of what you’re creating first. My approach has always been story, character, world and then that will fit on every screen. That’s what we see with “Daniel Tiger.” Whether it’s the Kindle or the iPad or the phone or the TV screen, the kids want to take Daniel with them wherever they are.
Has research on some of the popular preschool YouTube shorts of people playing with toys or modeling clay factored into your creative decisions at all?
It’s definitely something that we know about and we’re interested in, but we want to lead and we don’t want to follow in that sense. Kids watching kids play is interesting in and of itself and getting our kids to go out and play more — which is funny to say as a content creator, but we want kids to be able to turn off the screen and go and play with modeling clay for real, or go to the play corner and play pretend. We’re constantly inspiring and modeling that. We’re not looking actively to say, “OK this is working on YouTube, what can I do?” We’re looking at what we do really well, and then we take extensions of what we do and offer it on YouTube.
What is working well in children’s programming these days and what could be improved upon?
When we started out with “Blue’s Clues” it was 1996 and there were very few shows on the air for kids that spoke directly to them, but now that there’s so many what we need to be doing better is innovation. This is what my team is constantly thinking about: what’s innovative and what’s not. What does three years from now look like? What’s next five years from now? What is it that kids maybe need to learn, or know, or to be part of, and how do we break through that clutter so that parents and kids find it? Marketing is something that is of interest to me in terms of what do we need to do differently than we did before. The toys we can do or the products. Now, that business has changed. It’s not necessarily my business, but the people that we work with on that end also have to be innovative and different and current with the times and be creative… and have some patience, potentially, with the show in terms of understanding what it’s doing and why, and how it’s hitting.
There’s some really great content out there and there are more choices for consumers, which is great. What I also think is great is the idea that you can watch what you want to watch when you want to watch it. But that’s the strength of your brand. I really trust our content and scope and that kids are going to ask for Daniel or Blue and no matter what they’re going to program that and you don’t have to rely on anything else. And that sense of worry that your own show is your own brand, that’s something we’ve always been thinking about.
What innovations are you excited about right now?
We’re constantly experimenting and we’re looking at things in a completely different way. We talk to kids and do all of that stuff in terms of getting down and dirty to understand what’s exciting, and what’s out there, and what’s the technology. We are very excited about interactivity — I was doing pseudo-interactivity for a long time so the idea of having kids able to interact is very, very exciting to me. And then in the adult space and the tween space I just think there’s so much excitement and opportunity now about the kinds of stories we can tell. Comedy and beautiful live-action but with a moral center. That’s also entertaining and exciting and something that you really want to hang out with and be immersed in. At the end of the day, we won’t work on it if we’re not excited.