The things that all great shows have are great characters and great stories. Even in the pitch phase, what really attracts us in the (PBS Kids) programming department to a show is hearing a great idea, really falling in love with the characters and wanting to know more about what happens to them.
Linda Simensky leads an eyebrow-raising double life.
There's Linda the sophisticate — an Ivy League grad, killer sitar player, successful executive and mother of two young children.
But away from the public spotlight, Linda still channels her inner 6-year-old — a persona with a hardy appetite for watching cartoons and a prized toy collection that's strictly off-limits for her kids.
"I never went through that phase that everyone else did where you start thinking like an adult," said Simensky, vice president of children's programming for PBS. "Basically I just stayed in kid mode and became the adult I wanted to become when I was 6.
"I have discussions with my kids (ages 6 and 11) where they say things like, 'How come you have so many toys, and why won't you let us play with them?' Well, they're in boxes because I worked on these shows and I like the way they look in the packaging!"
Since joining PBS in 2003, Simensky has been making sure that the PBS Kids lineup lives at the intersection of entertaining and educational. If you've ever turned on the television and sat your kids down to watch a PBS Kids program like "Curious George," "Super Why," "Dinosaur Train" or "Sid the Science Kid," you probably owe a debt of thanks to the "double life" of Simensky, because her fingerprints are all over those shows.
With more than 25 years of experience working in the children's entertainment industry — her résumé also includes stints at Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network — Simensky is uniquely qualified to identify which shows will resonate with young viewers. And as the mother of two elementary school-age children, she's also a concerned parent who can appreciate the synergy inherent in educational television programs.
Folks like Simensky — razor-sharp professionals who never learned to forget how a child views the world — fuel PBS Kids to be a leader in innovative children's entertainment. In 2011, for example, PBS Kids nabbed an industry-best 12 Daytime Emmy Awards. The last time another network won more Daytime Emmys for children's programming than PBS was 1997.
Concocting a show kids will want to watch isn't rocket science; Simensky believes it always comes down to compelling characters and interesting stories.
"The things that all great shows have are great characters and great stories," she said. "Even in the pitch phase, what really attracts us in the (PBS Kids) programming department to a show is hearing a great idea, really falling in love with the characters and wanting to know more about what happens to them. It works the same way for us as it does for viewers."
According to Simensky, a PBS Kids show typically requires three years of development before it ever sees the light of day — about a year of which goes toward developing cross-platform interactive and educational elements to complement the show. In fact, the development phase process can actually stretch as long as five years, which was the case with "Wild Kratts," a show that teaches kids about wild animals through a unique combination of animation and live action.
Simensky views her job as more gatekeeper than micromanager. She identifies quality content early on and nurtures it through to maturity. By the time a show is actually on your television, though, ideally the production process will have evolved to a point where PBS maintains an oversight role but generally defers to its content partners — people like Dr. Scott D. Sampson.
As a world-class paleontologist, university professor and research curator at the Utah Museum of Natural History on the University of Utah campus, Sampson never intended to work extensively in TV. Even when the Jim Henson Company called to float the idea for a show called "Dinosaur Train," Sampson was dubious.
"My initial reaction when I heard about a show called 'Dinosaur Train' was that it was an unmitigated disaster," he recalls. "Mixing dinosaurs and trains seemed like a really bad idea when scientists are always trying to demonstrate that humans and dinosaurs didn't live at the same time. Putting dinosaurs on a train seemed odd."
But Sampson eventually acquiesced to the proposal after learning the intent wasn't to put humans and dinosaurs together — it was just to create a make-believe world where dinosaurs ride on trains.
"In some ways," he said, "I now think it's brilliant because you're taking two things kids love and sticking them together, kind of like chocolate and peanut butter. It works well."
Today, Sampson not only appears as "Dr. Scott" in a live-action segment at the end of every episode, but he's also a driving force behind the show's content as a consultant who ensures attention to detail and factual accuracy in the animated segments.
He has actually shifted gears to put academia and research on the backburner and make children's education his pinnacle career priority.
"In some ways, 'Dinosaur Train' has changed my life," Sampson said. "I had done a fair bit of television before, where I'd appeared on TV as a scientist talking about dinosaur paleontology and evolution. But here was an opportunity to reach kids.
"I all of a sudden realized you could reach millions and millions of children every day with really important messages like 'how does science work' and 'the importance of connecting to the natural world.' All of a sudden it just struck me like a bolt of lightning that we could have a large, ongoing impact with children's educations through a show like 'Dinosaur Train.'"
Although parents can understandably harbor an affinity for children's programming that not only entertains but also educates, Parents Television Council director of communications and public education Melissa Henson strongly believes that any television show — no matter how educational or high-quality — is not without limitations.
"Quite often those programs are entertaining and will keep the kid occupied," Henson said. "But I think it's important that we as parents don't kid ourselves that it's any kind of a substitute or replacement for one-on-one time with the child or reading to the child or doing things that actually have more educational benefit for the child than even the so-called educational programming on TV."
In many aspects, Sampson actually shares Henson's concerns about the perils of overreliance on the television medium — so much so that he makes a point of ending every episode by essentially encouraging kids to turn off the TV.2 comments on this story
"It's counterintuitive in the sense that one of the great problems today is kids spend 7-10 hours a day looking at screens, so to create another product where you'd be looking at a screen seems like you'd be shooting yourself in the foot if you're trying to get kids outside.
"But one of the conditions I made before getting involved with the Jim Henson Company and on-screen with 'Dinosaur Train' was that they would let me say something about getting kids outside. So we finally agreed on my tagline at the end of every episode: 'Get outside, get into nature and make your own discoveries.'"
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