Halle Stanford, the president of television at The Jim Henson Company, discussed the development and production ethos of the company at the TV Kids Summer Festival today.
Introduced by Gobo Fraggle, Stanford, in conversation with TV Kids’ Kristin Brzoznowski, discussed the “hope punk” approach to creating content at the company. You can watch the session here.
Stanford said she heard the phrase from a friend several years ago, “When she described it, I was like, I think that’s the kind of storytelling I’d love to do at The Jim Henson Company! Hope punk is basically, in my opinion, making corny cool again, bringing positivity back to programming, optimistic futures, feel good—that’s how the Muppets made me feel as a child! We felt like anything was possible in the world. Hope punk is this roadmap to the type of programming we create. We create inspiring [content]. We want people to feel innovative. We want them to thrive. We want them to feel really good once they watch our programs. We want to be super cool too.”
Brzoznowski asked Stanford how she and her teams are developing programming to support and inspire action in kids. “I talk about the war cry of our shows. We look to build first friends. They’re going to entertain our kids in the programming. They’re going to engage them, and they’re going to play with our audience. These friends are changemakers, and we look to them for inspiring meaning for preschoolers as they move forward.”
The upcoming slate at the company includes shows about dealing with anxiety, being emotionally diverse and climate activism. The company also tries to infuse in its shows themes like “joy, inspiration, how to have agency in the world in this age group. We also like to celebrate artists. I think that’s where we can stand alone and be unique. And then, we create fantasy spaces and fantasy landscapes. We can deliver the big wish fulfillment for kids and work on the most important thing: their imaginations. That’s what The Jim Henson Company can do in entertainment: build that muscle of imagination in adult viewers and kids and preschoolers. It’s the best gift we can give everybody on our shows.”
On continuing Jim Henson’s legacy in the company’s slate, Stanford referenced “The Rainbow Connection,” Kermit the Frog’s iconic song from The Muppet Movie. “I’m going to give everybody a little secret: If you break down the lyrics, there’s a whole secret formula that he gives all of us for our creativity! For us, it’s always: innovate visually, characters first, work with other dreamers and lovable weirdos. We strive for excellence. The co-viewing experience is really important. We talk a lot about transformative television—when I’m done watching the show, I want to feel transformed. I want to feel like kids, and their parents can walk away and say, you know what, I’m going to go out there and make the world a better place for myself, for others, for my community. All of those things carry on in the Jim Henson DNA.”
Stanford then talked about the Fraggle Rock revival on Apple TV+. “We sat down with them and figured out, how can we still bring that message of making the world a better place in the 21st century? The topics were a little bit different this time than they were in the ’80s, and some of them were the same. The heart of it stayed the same. The essence of Fraggle Rock stayed the same. We were excited to be given an opportunity to make it a premium Fraggle Rock. It was like Fraggle Rock 2.0. Let’s expand the world and the color, let’s have a filmic vision for the series. And I think we succeeded.”
The rise of the premium streamers has enabled The Jim Henson Company to revisit some of its classic properties in series form. “They became very interested in our bigger IP. And they were able to help us produce these shows at a level that could be executed for the marketplace. The whole reason that I am at The Jim Henson Company is because of Fraggle Rock and The Dark Crystal. Creating new series based on those franchises was a total dream come true, but couldn’t have been possible until the industry shifted its attention to really wanting to create this type of event programming for families.”
On developing shows that will speak to kids and resonate with caregivers, Stanford said: “The three things that bond families together—and we infuse these in our shows—are comedy, nostalgia and music. For preschool, we talk a lot about providing parents a toolbox to help them model the learning—whatever the show is trying to teach—outside of the home and inside of the home. We’re always encouraging kids to get up and get outside, get creative and get active. Those messages are always in there. I think that parents appreciate that. The thing that we do so well at Henson is we celebrate families.”
Stanford then discussed the considerations that go into what style is best for a program, given the company’s skills set across live action, animation and puppetry. “It’s whatever medium the story calls for. Sometimes, there could be a debate. Harriet the Spy was a debate. Do we do live action again, or do we do animation and make it all about 1962, New York City? Then we don’t need a $2 million budget to go back in time, and we can make it feel like this fantasy New York. So animation just seemed the right way to go. We had it inspired [by] the author’s illustrations of Harriet. With a puppet project, particularly in prime time, when we’re building creatures, it has to do with creating a magical reality. There’s nothing like a puppet or a creature to pull you into another universe, another story. We play in all kinds of mediums. We’re just always pushing the visuals.”
A screening of two episodes of Word Party followed Stanford’s keynote.