Angela Santomero may not be a household name herself, but if you have children who love Blue’s Clues or Super Why, you definitely know her work.
As the creator of both hugely successful children’s programs, she’s taking on a new project premiering this fall on PBS that she is co-producing with The Fred Rogers Company called Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. I talked with her recently so she could discuss her career and her inspiration for the new show.
EW: How did you get started in children’s television?
AS: I actually came at it from a different angle. I have a Masters in Child Developmental Psychology, so I look at television from an educational perspective and as a tool for learning. Blue’s Clues was an experiment on how to put out the very best preschool format and get it on TV. I wanted to make kids an interactive part of the learning process when it came to television. We created an entire curriculum for Blue’s Clues with shapes, numbers, letters, etc. We did extensive research over 25 episodes and found that kids who watched Blue’s Clues regularly were more ready for preschool than kids who didn’t.
EW: Speaking of research, I’ve heard that your production company does an extensive amount of research and focus groups during the production process; more than most shows.
AS: I know that the research we do adds to the production costs and time. But if I’m going to do something, I want it to truly deliver, so that’s why we do so much research when we produce these shows. I like to push the level of learning to stimulate kids and always model up. I’m always involved in every detail.
EW: How did Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood come about?
AS: I’m going to tell the story and try not to cry! Fred Rogers was the whole reason why I went into TV. I was the preschooler who couldn’t sit any closer to the television. When we premiered Blue’s Clues, I mentioned a lot that Fred was a real inspiration to me and the pacing of his show and his mix of live action and puppets. The first time I met him he was so nice to me and said, “What’s your name?” in the same way he would on the show. He invited me to visit the set of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and I just about fell over.
After he died we wanted to do something to honor his legacy and his team mentioned that he loved what I did with Blue’s Clues. The challenge was that we couldn’t just hire a new Mr. Rogers! So we decided to animate his puppet characters and create the next generation along with their backstories and families for all the original puppet characters. That was really fun.
This project took six years from start to finish. It’s amazing. And I feel responsible for honoring Fred Rogers’ legacy. They had to pry the first episode out of my hands after I wrote it. You can see nods of love to the original Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in the details of the new show. It’s really going to resonate with original fans and I love when people get it. I’m so excited for people to see it.
EW: What sort of learning and themes can we expect from the new show?
AS: We were very specific about what we wanted kids to learn with Daniel. We put all the socioemotional strategies to the forefront. Disappointment is the theme for the first episode and the strategy is when something is bad find something good. That strategy is then repeated throughout the show. It’s really the Fred Rogers concept. Empathy is a big theme on the new show. And Mr. Rogers didn’t shy away from tougher topics like death and divorce. We want to make sure kids know that it’s okay to be sad and how to deal with it. And we want parents to realize how cognitive these skills really are and that it’s all about problem solving. Again, we did a lot of research and testing with the kids. Kids are really getting it and they love it.
EW: You’ve been in the business now for almost 20 years. What’s your inspiration to keep motivated in this business?
AS: I live and breathe my shows. I love educating kids and I have to love and believe in what I do. I know it sounds corny, but at the end of the day I want to know I made a difference.
Angela will also be speaking on a panel at BlogHer '12 next month in New York City, so keep an eye out for her if you have questions or simply love her work!
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