Chris Nee, creator of the breakthrough show Doc McStuffins and a slew of other titles via an overall deal with Netflix, spoke to TV Kids Festival attendees about innovation in preschool narrative techniques, the keys to encouraging co-viewing and her work in driving forward diversity and inclusion in children’s media.
Nee is a 20-time Emmy nominee. In 2014, Doc McStuffins—which she created and executive produced—won a Peabody Award. She signed an overall multiyear deal with Netflix in 2018. You can watch her keynote conversation with TV Kids’ Kristin Brzoznowski here.
Nee created Doc McStuffins after watching her son cope with doctors’ visits when dealing with his asthma.
“I realized nobody had done a show to demystify kids’ fears of going to the doctor,” Nee said. “So it was a perfect idea at a perfect moment. But if I’m honest, the other piece of why [I made] that show at that time was that I felt like I wanted to leave writing for preschool TV. Everything was two-camera, call-and-response shows, and by page three, you have to have this event. I just wasn’t enjoying it anymore. I had other parts of the business I could have been writing in. So Doc was very much for me professionally a sense of being bored and seeing if I could write a show the way I wanted to and get it through.”
Nee then developed for television and executive produced the hit animated series Vampirina, a show with strong co-viewing appeal.
“By then, I had the ability to push further the tonality that I like for kids, which is often a little closer to family features,” Nee noted. “I started at Sesame Street, which was great at working on two levels—the level the kids were watching on and the one the parents were watching on. I don’t have that sense that if kids don’t understand every single beat of something, they won’t watch it. That’s a different way of approaching preschool TV. I think they recognize an emotional beat because of how everybody reacts to it. Doing really strong character comedy work through the very specific point of view of whatever the weirdness of the characters is keeps the parents in there. And then the other real secret when you’re trying to keep parents in and watching is having great voice casts and great music.”
Nee then talked about working with Netflix for the past four years, resulting in four shows. “I got to make all kinds of things that were just dream projects. We the People was a dream project. I felt like a kid in a candy store. I had so much fun filling up my life with these great collaborators and projects.”
Among those collaborators were former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama and their Higher Ground venture on Ada Twist, Scientist. “I had worked with Mrs. Obama a few times during the Doc McStuffins era. She did a voice for us, and I flew to D.C. and recorded her in the White House. And I went back a second time when we had an episode for military families and met up with Mrs. Obama. They were coming to Netflix, and I was coming to Netflix at the same time, and they were looking at Ada Twist. When the First Lady asks you to take on a project… I said no a couple of times because I’m not a science person, and I just needed to understand that I could do it well and that we were on the same page. Then, of course, I said yes, and I got to fly to D.C. again and sit down with Mrs. Obama, talk through the pilot script, look at all the original designs and find out what was important to her. She was a great partner.”
On implementing a science curriculum while keeping the series entertaining and engaging for kids, Nee noted: “I didn’t want to be doing a show where it was like two tablespoons of this and one tablespoon of this. In thinking about science, so many elements are unique to that discipline. One of them is that they celebrate failure. Failure has to happen on the path to success. We started to think about the emotions of science and how science and the discipline of science can be adapted for any other part of your life. That’s when I got excited about it.”
The relationship with the Obamas continued with We the People, which emerged from Nee’s desire to do a show that allowed a conversation with kids about civics.
Nee then talked about how the children’s programming industry has evolved regarding diversity and inclusion, on- and offscreen.
“It’s important that you’re seeing it on-screen. But also, you’re not going to see it on-screen or see it on-screen properly if we’re not starting to see real change in the halls where we work. In that respect, I still get frustrated because, of course, we’re not there. We tend to do three steps forward and two steps back. I wish we could just do a ten-step leap forward and maybe one back. But I get excited when I look around a space like Netflix or Disney…and see a lot more diversity in the ranks. We have to keep pushing the same process. My big thing is that we have to stop having so many programs and just hire people for the jobs. That’s really what I try to do.”
Much has changed since the premiere of Doc McStuffins, Nee continued. “For one thing, I would not run a Doc McStuffins now. I was not the showrunner of Ada Twist. It’s a model that I’ve been using, which is often elevating first-time showrunners and creators, letting them be the showrunners and executive producers of their shows. With Ada Twist, I did the bible and the pilot, and then after that, we brought on a Black showrunner, Kerri Grant, who’s amazing. I look at Doc—I would not be making that show anymore.”
Nee then talked about her creative process. “I’m very character-based. What is the world I will be able to play in for a long time? I’ve been in this business for close to 30 years, so I’ve seen so many different cycles. Right now, we’re in these very short-order, two-season things, so God help me if I can’t find enough stories for that. But when you look at Doc, we had to come up with 400 and something stories for that series. You want to make sure you have a world with an engine in it so you can say, I can come up with two seasons, three seasons. I am only trying to amuse myself and delight myself. It’s a little bit of an odd thing. Who am I writing for? I think I’m supposed to say the kids, and I am not writing for the kids. I need to be able to write monologues that make me laugh. I want to be able to be brought to tears. If I am feeling that invested and building something that can be for me, it does seem to be how I bring all these other people along.”
Nee’s most recent project is Spirit Rangers, created and run by Karissa Valencia, whom she had worked with on Vampirina. “Along the process of working with her, I found out that she is Native. When I moved to Netflix and knew that I could develop and produce other people’s work, the first person I went to was Karissa and said, ‘What story do you want to tell from your perspective?’ I want to accelerate this incredibly slow process of getting the right people into the positions of telling the stories. Karissa came back with the best idea. When we sold it to Netflix, my thing was, she had to be the showrunner, not just in name. I will be there to help her, especially through season one, through all the stuff she doesn’t know how to do. All of the real creative guidance and leadership is all from her. It was an all-Native writing room, an all-Native cast. We made a bunch of leaps on people who weren’t the normal suspects out of L.A. and ensured that the people who were being represented on-screen were making the show. We had over 100 Native people on the crew. It’s not my show. I’m an EP of it. I’m so proud of it. It has been one of the most glorious journeys I’ve ever been on. She’s the first Native woman to create an animated show ever. So many stories would not be told unless there was an entire room of all Native writers. I wish everyone who’s had the real privilege of success in this business would look at a piece of the business that needs to change for the future to be healthy and give some of their time and energy back to that.”