As Senior Vice President of Playhouse Disney Worldwide, Nancy Kanter knows children's programming. She supervises the development of top-rated shows including Handy Manny, Imagination Movers, Little Einsteins and Higglytown Heroes, and knows the secret to making high quality children's programs.
Nancy Kanter recently spoke with Jeana Lee Tahnk to tell Mommy Tracked readers about what it takes to create a successful kid's program as well as inform us that Disney will be premiering a Handy Manny Health Public Service Announcement on Friday, December 11 to educate kids on proper flu prevention.
Can you tell us a little bit about the upcoming "Handy Manny" health PSA that you will be issuing regarding this flu season? What prompted you to choose Handy Manny as the spokesperson of choice?
Because we have kids' eyes and ears, as well as parents on our programming, we are always looking for opportunities to provide timely and topical messages that are relevant to families with young children. The impetus for the Handy Manny flu prevention interstitial that shows what kids can to do lessen their chances for catching the flu came out of a meeting that I had with the White House Office of Public Engagement. We met with that team a few months ago and were told just how important it was to get the message out to as many kids and families as possible as the flu season was about to start.
We came back and thought about what would be the most effective way to do that and recognized that Manny and his tools would be able to deliver that message in a positive, non-threatening and entertaining way. Manny is the perfect model for a caring, involved, patient parent and the tools add the right element of childlike inquisitiveness and humor. And, of course, we know our audience is watching this show in big numbers so it gave us the best chance to reach the biggest audience and thereby make the most impact.
You began your career as a film editor. What made you decide to enter the foray of children's programming?
I left film editing to become a producer, mostly because I was growing restless about sitting in dark rooms for hours on end, and I found myself becoming more interested in stories that related to kids, because by then I had a couple of my own. Everything I've done has really been about telling stories. It's just the audience that's different.
As an educational television executive, what are your thoughts on how much kids should be watching each day?
I often get asked this question. The answer for me is that it's a decision that parents have to make for themselves in line with their own needs, interests and priorities. We certainly hope, and advocate, that kids spend time doing lots of different things, making sure there is a good balance between physical activities, quiet time activities such as reading and listening to music, and the use of television and other media.
What are the most important things you consider when creating content for children's programming?
Will it be engaging for a child, will it be enlightening and original, is there a strong take-away message that can make a difference in a child's development?
Children's programming has certainly diversified in both content and character from when I was a kid. With characters like Handy Manny, Dora, Diego, etc., it's great that kids are getting exposed to other cultures. As a mom with Korean ancestry, I'd love to see a kid's show with an Asian kid as the main character. Do you foresee that happening in the future?
We have a short-form series on Playhouse Disney that features a pair of Asian twins, a boy and a girl. It's called Lou & Lou: Safety Patrol and it's been one of our most successful series of short form programs. Lou and Lou scour their neighborhood for safety "violations" so that they can help kids understand the importance of staying safe - things like remembering to wear your bike helmet, buckle up in the car, not touch hot or sharp objects in the kitchen. Parents love it because it delivers these important messages to their kids in a funny way and kids think Lou and Lou are really cool because they have badges, a clipboard, and little pedal powered go-cart.
We also have a new long form series in development that features an entirely Asian cast. All to say that we are always looking to represent as much diversity in our programs as we possibly can. Handy Manny's neighborhood of Sheet Rock Hills is a virtual United Nations - I think we've had stories involving people from just about everywhere.
How do you go about developing a new character/TV show? There's obviously a great deal that goes into it - is there a lot of 'kid-testing' involved and has there ever been a time when kids didn't respond well to a character and the show never got off the ground?
We do an enormous amount of research with kids as well as moms. Once we have a project that we think is in good enough shape to show to parents and kids we will field research a pilot. We have kids watch the show in their own homes and then ask their parents to come in and talk to us about how their kids reacted. We'll also bring kids and moms into a research facility and watch them watch the pilot and then talk to them about it.
Always looking for ways to make the show better in series and to see what elements worked and what didn't. Then once we are actually in series production we test every episode with kids in preschools during the process. We show them very rough, simplified versions of the episodes well before they are finished and can again see what they are getting and what they aren't. We'll then go back and make adjustments to the script and to the visuals before we finalize an episode.
Oh yes, there have been several times when despite our best efforts a show didn't get off the ground. The great thing about working with kids this age is that they have very little in the way of social filters, so you know right away if they are interested. When they start asking to go home or are more interested in the air conditioning ducts than what's playing on the TV screen, you know you have a problem.
With kids' adoption of technology at a younger age - toddlers using computers, smartphones, etc. - how are you shaping the future of the Disney programming to embrace the next generation of technology enthusiasts?
I love the new technology that is beginning to surround us. I think it offers unprecedented access to information and community building around the world. So I've been eager to find ways to make it accessible and relevant to young kids and parents.
It's not something to be afraid of if it's used appropriately and with good intentions.
We've used mobile phone technology to connect our audiences to characters in our shows - moms could register their kid to get a personalized call from Special Agent Oso on their cell phone - we stream episodes on broadband so they are available to kids and families when they want to see them, we have a very robust website that provides all sorts of entertaining and learning based activities. And we're looking at even more ways to embrace new media and make it work for kids and families.
Since you're surrounded by TV programming on a daily basis, what do think makes for a successful show? What kinds of programs do you watch at home?
Great stories and original characters are the two essential ingredients for any successful show. It all starts and ends with that. At home I am a food channel addict. It's basically all that's ever on in my house. I don't know why but I could watch Giada DeLaurentiis stir tomato sauce all day long.
Senior Vice President of Playhouse Disney Worldwide Nancy Kantor was interviewed by Jeana Lee Tahnk . As a writer and professional photographer, Jeana's work and personal essays on parenting have appeared in high profile outlets as The Boston Globe, NPR's This I Believe and Woman's Day. She is also a public relations consultant with an agency in San Francisco. She currently splits her time between her dual careers of PR and writing from her home on the North Shore in Massachusetts.
Want to hear from another smart working mom behind some of your kids' favorite shows? Check out our chat with Jim Henson Company Co-CEO and Sid the Science Kid creator, Lisa Henson .