Blue’s Clues & You!’s Traci Paige Johnson & Angela C. Santomero

Traci Paige Johnson, who also provides the voice for Blue, and Angela C. Santomero spoke with TV Kids about Blue’s Clues’ origin story, why now was the right time to reboot the series and the importance of interactive programming for young viewers.

Twenty-three years since the original Blue’s Clues bowed on Nickelodeon (and then ran for six critically-acclaimed seasons) creators Traci Paige Johnson and Angela C. Santomero have ushered in an updated version of the series for today’s kids in the recently premiered Blue’s Clues & You! The remake once again follows the lovable pup Blue as she invites viewers to come along on clue-led adventures to solve a puzzle in each episode. In for Steve Burns as host is Joshua Dela Cruz, who first made a name for himself on Broadway in the titular role in Aladdin. Other updates include CG-animation for Blue and Magenta, a Handy Dandy Notebook with smartphone technology and new characters such as twins Sage and Ginger joining Mr. Salt and Mrs. Pepper, Tickety Tock, Mailbox and the original Thinking Chair. Further, Nickelodeon is deepening the interactivity in Blue’s Clues & You! with the launch of play-along videos on Noggin, Nick’s interactive learning subscription for preschoolers.

Blue’s Clues & You! debuted on Nickelodeon on Monday, November 11. and the Nick Jr. app will feature original short-form content and full-length episodes following their airing. Episodes will also be available on Nick Jr. On Demand and via download-to-own services.

TV KIDS: How did the original idea for Blue’s Clues come about? I read that originally the show was going to be called Blue’s Prints and that Blue was meant to be a cat?
JOHNSON: Yes! Nickelodeon was at the height of doing game shows like Double Dare. When they started their preschool [network], Nick Jr., they wanted to do a game show for preschoolers. So that was kind of the impetus for, how do we do a game show for preschoolers? Because we knew we couldn’t have live-action preschoolers running around. Angela Santomero was in the research department of Nickelodeon, and the research they were looking at had some ideas of kids really talking back to the screen—if you take a pause, and kind of break that interaction. We took that idea and had a game show where the games are organically built into the stories of the show. We also knew that a live-action host garnered much more interaction than an animated character. You know that when someone breaks that wall and leans in and talks to you, from seeing Mister Rogers, how powerful that is and how empowering that is. So we kind of married the two together. We also knew we wanted to create something breakthrough in the sense of feeling fresh and new, something that’s never been done before. We were the first show to be animated on Macintosh computers with cut-out animation and having a live-action host in that animated environment, and all those elements together and having real music by real jazz musicians too. All those ingredients made the perfect recipe for a hit.
SANTOMERO: We were so into the idea that it was the “blueprints” for child development; we were very into our educational point of view and philosophy, which we still stand by. I can’t remember the quote, but it was like, Kids are calling it Blue’s Clues. You can call it whatever you want, but kids will call it Blue’s Clues. So I like to think that the kids named the show just like the kids in general run the show, which is why the new show, the new iteration is Blue’s Clues & You! We’re making a real point of going through the screen as much as possible—as much if not more so than we did in the original series. To create the sense that [the kids] are a main character in the show, that they’re playing along. The whole idea was to do something that looked really different, and putting a live-action character in an animated environment looked really different than anything on TV, which I still think it does. And then the idea that we incorporated CG for the new iteration took us up another notch. And then playing with the educational point of view, and then the three clues, critical thinking plus kindergarten-readiness skills. We wanted to meld all of those things together. We talked about it changing the way kids watch TV because they’re a main character.

TV KIDS: Why did now feel like the right time to reintroduce Blue’s Clues, to bring it back for a new audience of children?
JOHNSON: For one, a lot of kids who grew up with Blue’s Clues or whose siblings grew up with Blue’s Clues are starting to have kids of their own. With the landscape the way it is now, with so much streaming and so much choice, well-loved brands have been coming back—shows like Will & Grace and Roseanne. We were always talking to Nickelodeon about bringing it back. And the timing seems right now. Also, with the state of the world, just having the comfort of things you loved as a kid coming back. It’s just a loving force of good coming back out. We couldn’t be more thrilled about how well-received it’s been. It can be a little scary bringing back something that had such a big fan base. Like how Star Wars or Star Trek comes out and everybody is kind of picking it apart, but so far so good. We think that we kept the balance of keeping the classic but introducing the fresh. Blue is now CG-animated so she looks more fluffy and huggable than ever. A lot of work and research when into the Handy Dandy Notebook phone. We wanted to keep the classic and the fine motor skills of drawing for preschoolers. We didn’t want to make it all digital but we knew that tablets and smartphones are in preschoolers’ environment and everyday world, so [we wanted] to kind of meld that together.
SANTOMERO: It’s the perfect time because our original audience is in their mid-20s, so they’re either having kids of their own or there’s that level of nostalgia there that can kind of escort us back into the new series. There’s really still nothing like it on TV, so the timing just seems so right for that generation, and Nickelodeon knew that and noticed that and asked us if we wanted to do it again.

TV KIDS: For the new series, you’ve refreshed some of the show’s more iconic elements. What was important for you to keep similar to the original and what did you think the show needed to appeal to today’s kids?
JOHNSON: Even though we wanted to keep the iconic stripes of Blue’s Clues, just refreshing it. Instead of green, going to blue, which kind of just pops. And then the Handy Dandy Notebook is one, again wanting to be more modern, but keeping true to the original show. But also that preschoolers should know, nothing trumps crayon and paper, drawing and thinking through those things. And the Thinking Chair, we knew we wanted to keep that the same. A lot of the songs we kept and then some we kind of refreshed, but still in that same vein of original Blue’s Clues’ musical style.
SANTOMERO: We knew that the host was going to be new and different, and so already that was such a huge piece—finding the anchor to our show, finding Josh was really important to make sure that we’re representing kids today. What are we doing? What are we saying? Asking all of these questions. We’d always ask why now? Why this show now? Josh was definitely an answer to that. And then the idea of opening the script up and basically acknowledging that the first episode premiered 23 years ago and so playing a little bit there was really important for us. And then updating the look to include CG Blue and Magenta. And then for Traci and I, the notebook is a good meld because it’s the back-to-basics where we still have the crayon and the yellow paper—because you use a notebook your whole life and need to learn how to write things down to remember them. But also a smartphone, like the idea that there’s a visual device that when Salt and Pepper call us from the kitchen, we can see that. Or when we get a letter, sometimes Mailbox brings the letter and sometimes Mailbox comes in and tells us that we’ve got an email and it’s visual. We’re just kind of using a level of technology that means something to preschoolers and then playing with that.

TV KIDS: And how did you go about finding the right new edition in Joshua Dela Cruz?
JOHNSON: Nickelodeon pulled out all the stops. It was about a six-month process. We had an open-call process at Nickelodeon Studios. They went out all over the country, not just to the major cities, but little small towns and people could send in tapes. We kind of whittled and whittled and whittled and it was when it was like the last five. We had been very excited to have Steve Burns, the original host [back]. He’s a consulting producer on the show, also a director and writer. He really was integral in helping us find Josh, and when we were doing the last callbacks, he was actually helping direct them and giving them tools of how to talk to the camera and kind of creating that space, that wonderful world of Blue’s Clues. It was such a thrill to see [the actors] because we didn’t tell them he was going to be there and he would kind of pop off. After they did a take, he would pop off and start giving notes and the look on their faces when they finally realized who that was. It was fantastic. It was a great candid-camera moment.
SANTOMERO: Between Traci and I and Nickelodeon and Steve, we saw 3,000 people. But I think the most important part was workshopping. Literally taking some scripts and playing with them with the actors and actresses that came in. And really trying to see their connection to the home viewer. And at the end of the day, Josh not only had musical talent and plays the guitar and can dance and can sing, but his connection through the camera to the home viewer is like nothing else. He just makes you smile and he makes you feel important because he wants to know what you think. That was the best part.

TV KIDS: This time around, the show is going to have a bit more interactivity with play-along videos. Was that always a part of the plan in bringing the show back? And do you find that it’s more important than ever to have that sort of element in kids’ TV?
JOHNSON: Absolutely. Play-along video, that’s kind of what we meant Blue’s Clues to be and the technology kind of caught up with us. This is going to be the first time there’s going to be a live-action person. Usually, those play-along episodes or play-along videos are all animated, but they’ve worked out and created a whole technology where they have Josh on there, so he’ll be on camera and you can interact with him in a physical way. At the end, when Josh is doing the think through, those clues that [the kids] drew are the ones that appear overhead. That ownership that the kids have is so empowering for that audience. It’s so engaging. It’s just been incredible. All the new technology that exists is just fantastic, so we’re excited about all of that.
SANTOMERO: By right now, we thought we’d have interactive TV, where Josh would literally hear what you’re saying. Like come on, how is it not quite there yet? [Laughs] Play-along video was the answer. Watching that and being able to have kids intuitively and literally interact is so frickin’ exciting for us. We love that. And also, to make sure that when we’re shooting the show and when Josh is talking to the camera that we’re pulling elements even further into interactivity. The home viewer takes a photo for Josh, where we’re part of it and doing things in addition to what we’re able to do in play-along. I’m all about active participation. I don’t believe that kids are couch potatoes ever. Kids are active and learning and thinking and we just need to give them time to answer and talk with us and show that we are listening and to show that we care. Having an engaging piece, whether it’s a show that makes you think about something and then you play it later or makes you think differently about the world. I went into media to change the world for kids, which sounds big and huge and crazy. But the truth is, if we could elevate that for even one child, we would have done our job, right?