Ever wonder why Arthur is always wearing a yellow sweater and red converse?
Yes, it does help with brand recognition. The primary determinant, though, is something far less artistic— money. Put simply: the more outfits Arthur has, the more work for animators; the more work for animators, the greater the subsequent costs.
While children’s television may appear silly or slapstick, it is created with layers of intention. There is rationale guiding every princess, pirate, or rhinoceros reverie. From the cherry on top of Mr. Swizzle’s ice cream shop to the musical flourish emphasizing a character’s revelation, every detail is scrutinized by a collection of diverse perspectives. As a child, I didn’t give these details a second thought. As a children’s programming intern at GBH, it is precisely these details that govern my day-to-day.
Balancing education with entertainment is one of the primary goals of production staff. Sure, we could spout lectures ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ style. Too educational? Instead, we could have a mole fart as it burrows into the ground. Far less fire and brimstone!
As public media creators, however, we have to do more than give parents enough time to take a nap or brew a third pot of coffee. As public media creators, we are charged with educating and inspiring children. To this end, we work closely with educational specialists for curriculum creation and learning goal development. These academic grounds guide the creative development of wonderfully entertaining shows.
Yet it’s still not that simple. Not only do our shows need to be educational and entertaining, they also need to fit our non-profit budget. We don’t have funds like Netflix, Pixar, or other billion dollar studios. As a result, producers have to be very conscientious of where assets are headed. Every new background, character, outfit, song, and talent comes with a cost. And some of our shows are working with world-renowned talent (no, I cannot tell you who…they are THAT great).
Additionally, our public funding binds us to the demands of PBS and other partners. Molly of Denali, for example, is funded by the Department of Education’s Ready to Learn grant. As if pleasing children wasn’t hard enough!
While keeping finances in check, GBH is also dedicated to diversity and inclusion. On Molly of Denali, we hire Alaska natives to voice our characters. Investing in cultural advisors helps to ensure that our shows honor individual backgrounds. Similarly, sourcing photographs of Denali and tribal leaders helps to ensure that our shows maintain authenticity.
Our creative endeavors are also guided by formative testing. After reading children across the U.S. our stories, we ask them a series of questions: Did you like this character? How are you similar to this character? Out of all of these titles, which do you like most?
We also request parent feedback. I was most curious to hear what parents thought of our nonbinary character: Did you notice the character’s nonbinary identity? What do you think of this?
Here is a snapshot of my fellow interns and I discussing queer representation in children’s media:
So, the next time you catch a glimpse of a ‘silly’ children’s show, remember: behind every snowy mountain or inconspicuous prop, there stands a team of dedicated individuals and careful thought.