Television producer and writer Angela Santomero has repeatedly broken new ground in children’s television programming with shows such as Blue’s Clues, Super Why! and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.
On Friday her newest show, Creative Galaxy, premieres on Amazon Instant Video — the latest step in the Seattle-based technology company’s move into original television programming. The show, featuring the adventures of an alien named Arty and his friend Epiphany, helps preschoolers learn about art, and discover new ways to express themselves through art.
We spoke with Santomero for this week’s episode of the GeekWire radio show and podcast, airing this weekend on KIRO-FM (97.3) in Seattle and available as a podcast on GeekWire starting Saturday. Continue reading for edited excerpts from the conversation, and tune in this weekend for more.
Your shows have appeared on networks like Nick Jr. and PBS. What does it say about the changes in the media landscape that your new show is premiering on Amazon?
Santomero: You know, I love it. I love being where the kids are, and being able to give them what they want when they want it. I’ve always been fascinated with the interactivity — being able to be pseudo-interactive and have kids at home be participating in the journeys and the learning and everything we’re doing. With Amazon it really opens the door to so many more possibilities for kids. I’ve just had a great time working with the group. Tara Sorensen, who heads the kids’ network over there, is passionate about education and what we’re doing for kids. It’s been a really great experience for me.
How does the process of developing a show for Amazon compare to the traditional television development process?
Santomero: One of the big ways that it’s different is their dedication to research. Starting at Blue’s Clues, we’ve had a formative research team, and we started back then going in to talk to parents and going into talk to kids, with every episode that we would do, two to three times per episode.
With Amazon, what’s been fascinating, is they have a huge focus group of parents and kids that they can reach out to. With Creative Galaxy, a version of the storyboard was put up on Amazon to get people’s input. I would just sit there and read every comment that came in, and take notes, and figure out what was being said, and what kinds of things were being asked of us in terms of where the show could go.
We do tons of research in curriculum development before we put pen to paper. Parents were really seeing that right from the beginning, and wanted more of that. That really opened the floodgates for us to push the level of curriculum further.
My preschooler has been screening Creative Galaxy with me, and you have your first fan, for sure. She is engrossed.
Santomero: Oh, I love it. I always tell people, you have to watch with a kid. You have to watch with someone in that audience. That level of participation that we ask of the home viewer, that’s why we pace it the way that we do, so that we really can get them in. So that’s great, that’s really exciting.
That is a theme of a lot of the shows that you’ve done. In Blue’s Clues, for example, the main character Steve is very, very engaged with the audience at home, to the point that kids are basically yelling at the screen when they see a clue. What about that interactivity is important?
Santomero: It really comes down to the learning. I’m having them not just model whatever it is that we’re teaching, but we want kids to be practicing those skills. For Super Why! they’re literally practicing the skills that the National Reading Panel deems critical for success. We want them to be part of it, and the more that they do, and the more their entire body is part of the journey, the more they’ll retain and they’ll learn.
You’ve been one of the pioneers in terms of breaking down that barrier between the characters in the TV and the kids at home. Now you have all these new things out there — mobile apps, and things like the Xbox Kinect — where the kids are literally interacting with the TV. How does that change things?
Santomero: We do that for Super Why specifically (with apps). We are creating the apps for kids to practice those skills and take them through the process, so that they’re learning reading at their level. You have to be part of that adventure to be able to want to use these games to get you to the next level. I want kids to feel super invested in what they’re doing and not just create something that’s more of a “drill and skill,” for lack of a better word.
So we’ve been playing in that area, and with Amazon as a partner, there’s so much we can do for kids. Having the episodes up there — we’re going to be premiering with six at a time — parents are going to be able to choose, and kids are going to be able to choose, which episodes to watch, depending on what’s going on in their world.
If you were to look out three to five years, what do you think will be the main ways that kids are interacting with this content and absorbing these lessons? Do you see things changing fundamentally?
Santomero: I really think this level of interactivity and being able to scaffold the material at your level as a child would be so cool. To be able to literally do that in real time. I would love to see that happen, where it’s a very personalized show for you. That would be awesome. I’m definitely always looking for that next thing, and that next way to talk to them, and really figuring out how to change the world, one preschool show at a time.
To hear an extended version of this interview — including Santomero’s thoughts on the influence of Fred Rogers and managing kids’ screen time — check out this weekend’s episode of the GeekWire radio show, airing at 7 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday on KIRO-FM (97.3) in Seattle. The show runs on GeekWire.com every weekend. It’s available as a podcast using this RSS feed, by subscribing in iTunes. Also search for the show on Stitcher.