The TV Kids Festival featured Sesame Workshop’s Kay Wilson Stallings, Nelvana’s Athena Georgaklis, Cyber Group Studios’ Ira Singerman and Boat Rocker’s Shaleen Sangha sharing their approaches to crafting development slates that meet the needs of all players in the market.
Georgaklis serves as head of development at Nelvana. Singerman is VP of development for Cyber Group Studios’ U.S. operations. Wilson Stallings serves as Sesame Workshop’s executive VP of creative and production. Sangha is the VP of content for kids and family at Boat Rocker Studios. The panel, which you can watch here, was moderated by TV Kids’ Anna Carugati.
At Sesame Workshop, finding and nurturing new concepts always begins with “character and story,” Wilson Stallings said. “We’re looking for characters that are relatable to our audience. Characters that our audience will want to be friends with. We look for stories that are meaningful to our audience. Stories that are on topics that our audience can relate to. And then, as an educational media company, we also look for the pressing and most critical needs of kids at any time. And incorporate all of those into the content that we develop.”
It’s a similar viewpoint at Nelvana, Georgaklis said. “I came from a broadcast background before I went into development at Nelvana, and I know that buyers are often looking for very specific content at any given time, and that can change. You can’t only rely on what the trend is to build a slate because those trends change all the time. Ultimately, we’re always looking for a meaningful, creative, fun story driven by great characters, and it has to fit within our overall priorities.”
“Story wins” is the motto at Boat Rocker, Sangha noted. “Being a BIPOC exec, it’s very important to me to tell diverse stories as well. So finding new voices, finding people who are underrepresented and putting them on screen is a core philosophy that we stand by and try to make our slate very diverse. It’s about having that varied slate of things that we are specifically asked for, things that we think are going to be hot in the next couple of years and things that we just genuinely love and are like, this is great IP, and we just want to see it get made.”
“It is all about the story, characters, what will connect with the audience,” agreed Singerman. “We are an independent producer, so we do need to be aware of what the market wants and needs. That is a moving target. We have to live with these projects for many years in development and, hopefully, ultimately, production. We just need to love it through and through. And with that, we also spend a lot of time putting ourselves in the shoes of the kids. How will they reenact our storytelling on their bedroom floors with toys, food or whatever it is? How are we going to excite and inspire?”
The conversation then moved to finding talent, especially diverse talent. “You’re always looking for talent from diverse backgrounds so that we can make sure that kids see themselves represented,” Wilson Stallings said. “Yes, there’s great talent out there, but I think there could be more. At the Workshop, we have a writing fellowship program where we’re looking to source and develop diverse and underrepresented talent. We’re building the next generation of puppet talent. We don’t do animation in-house, but we partner with studios that look for diverse talent, raise that talent up and put them in key decision-making roles. But broadly, I think there’s much more that we could do. We don’t want to keep going to the well all the time with the same group of talent.”
“A lot of shows are being made—it can get competitive,” Singerman added. “When it comes to diversity, there’s always more work to do. We need to make sure that when we are telling diverse stories, there is the proper representation associated on-screen and behind the scenes.”
“People have historically just gone to the same pool of people because it’s whom you know,” added Sangha. “There are people out there, but the people who are experienced and have show-run before, executive story edited before, might not be on your radar, or you’re going to the same person over and over again. We’re trying, especially with subsequent seasons or shows, to reach outside our group. I spend many hours on Instagram looking at BIPOC designers and messaging them to try to find people I don’t know. And I have found interesting talent through doing it. On the writing side, we make room for writers. We ensure that we’re meeting with BIPOC writers or disabled writers, any sort of underrepresented groups so that we can try to push that and get more talent behind the screen.”
“It’s one thing to have an initiative and another thing to talk about the long tail,” Georgaklis added.
The discussion then moved to the pros and cons of working with known IP versus brand-new ideas on a development slate.
“Maybe, hopefully, we’re at the tail end of the wave of known IP being the driving force,” Georgaklis noted. “New ideas can start to creep up and creep through again because there are so many great ones. But ultimately, discoverability is at the core of it. It’s so hard to find a show these days.”
“Again, this goes back to the varied slate,” Sangha said. “We need to do IP because you can go to a buyer and say, This is a New York Times bestseller. We know it has a built-in audience. We know that people will gravitate toward it, and we can make new fans, too. But then, on the other end, we want to make the next big IP, the next huge thing. Our goal is to do both. The biggest thing now with new shows is, how do you make sure that it’s familiar and that people look at it and say, this may not be IP, but it’s something I relate to? It’s also challenging to develop IP sometimes that already has a built-in DNA; you have to change from the book, but you don’t want to change too much because then why are you optioning the book?”
Singerman added: “Original IP is the lifeblood of why we do this. We’re here to create new ideas and franchises and bring something into the world that inspires the next generation of kids. But of course, having known IP is certainly very important in terms of a business consideration. We balance both. It comes down to storytelling. What has the richest stories? What has the most universal and resonant themes? What has the characters that we care about the most? Known IP is like going into a jungle and you have a map, you have a compass, you know the direction. There’s still work to do and things to discover, but it’s a much safer path you’re taking. Whereas original IP, you’re dropped in the jungle. You don’t know where you’re going, you don’t have a map or a compass, and you have to forge a new path. That is sometimes the most exciting part of the job. Where are these unknowns? What are these discoveries that we’re going to make? And you can certainly do that in an adaptation of a known IP, but there’s even more opportunity in original IP.”
Sesame Street is 50-plus years old, Wilson Stallings pointed out. “We’ve had a lot of great opportunities to reimagine some of those characters, but we also want to make new stuff.”
On playing with forms and different platforms, Singerman noted: “In the quest to be ubiquitous and build franchises and be everywhere kids need to be, we have to think about how different platforms and different experiences demand different types of storytelling.”
Georgaklis added: “Kids consume content on different platforms for different purposes in different ways. Any time I talk about development, the first thing I tell everyone is to get to know your audience. That helps us understand what the strategy will be. We try to work our way around where our audience is and where they love to consume that specific type of content we’re creating. There’s so much out there, and their exposure to media is open at such a young age. We’re always looking at what value we can add to their day-to-day and where they will find us. It’s all part of the equation.”