Linda Simensky, head of content at PBS KIDS, talks to TV Kids about the role and value of public-service broadcasting in the kids’ programming landscape.
As the only children’s programming block on U.S. public television, PBS KIDS has undertaken the mandate to deliver content that is educational, entertaining and authentically reflects the world that kids are living in today. It has developed a multiplatform approach to respond to the quickly evolving media environment and meet the needs of current and future viewers.
TV KIDS: Can you share a brief overview of the role that kids’ programming plays on PBS KIDS?
SIMENSKY: PBS KIDS is focused on kids between the ages of 2 and 8, and we are both educational and entertaining. We focus on some core themes of curiosity, enthusiasm and optimism, which are all very important these days, although we’ve been focusing on those things for years. We do a lot of shows that, while generally built around a typical topic that you might find on educational television like nature or learning how to read, we really are trying to imbue each show with a little bit of what it’s like to be really interested in something, or what it’s like to have a lot of fun doing something that you really love. We have this new strategy called ‘New Voices, New Approaches,’ and it’s been, for us, a way to talk to people who haven’t historically developed shows for PBS, for a variety of reasons, and try to invite them in. We’re trying to get a lot of different viewpoints on our air and represent all different kinds of kids. We’re working on developing different ways in, different platforms that people can work on. We’re just trying to have fun thinking about how kids watch now, where kids watch now and how we can make shows for the way kids watch now.
TV KIDS: Are there certain content directives or mandates you must take into consideration with regard to programming?
SIMENSKY: For us, the goal for educational programming is not spelled out in our charter, but it is spelled out that we need to be educational. The way we’ve considered this is we have to do programming that has impact. When PBS was designed, I don’t think they were thinking this is a replacement for school; I think they were thinking we should use programming to enlighten people and to give them information that they might want that they might not get in school or otherwise. I always look at our programming as it needs to have impact, it needs to encourage kids, it needs to introduce them to things that they will find interesting but didn’t even know about. That’s what guides us. One of the things we say is, all American kids should see themselves somewhere on our air. We are working hard to live up to that. It sounds easy, but there are a lot of different kinds of people in the U.S., so we’re working at figuring out how to do that. If kids are going to see themselves, those characters need to be created by people who know what they are talking about. It goes back to finding a variety of creators to bring their visions to our screens.
TV KIDS: What do you look for in acquired content?
SIMENSKY: We program for kids between the ages of 2 and 8 and, within that, there’s the younger preschool age group, either 2 to 4, or 2 to 5, or 3 to 5. I think Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is a good example of a ‘first’ TV show. These shows are kind of like entry-level PBS shows. It’s your first show, the show that introduces you to watching content. What we try to cover in those shows really is, if you’re new to the world, what information is it that you’re looking for? We have some shows that are just teaching how the world works, like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, or simple lessons like, if you slug someone, they won’t be happy, and what to do about that. I always think of us as the guide to how the world works for younger kids. For slightly older kids, the 4-to-7, 4-to-8 age group, we’re teaching more information that you might need. You might be curious about animals, so a show like Wild Krattswould work for you.
We do anywhere from one to three new series a year. Sometimes that third series is because it was supposed to be the second series in another year, and we didn’t time it right. We usually put a few new things into development. Historically, we did 11-minute pilots. We’re starting to try things like a whole series of shorts instead of a pilot. We put those 3-minute shorts out on different platforms. We’re trying to use different platforms to figure out what length things should be. A lot of what we’re doing is at the younger end of preschool. [We] focus on that entry into content and making that a positive experience for kids and parents and caregivers.[We did] Molly of Denali, which was a show that we did very, very public broadcasting-ish, to the point where I couldn’t believe we hadn’t done it yet. It just seemed so obvious, but it wasn’t. It hadn’t been done. We focused an entire series on an Alaskan native girl, but we did it like it was a regular animated show, just telling stories of her doing fun and interesting things. The curriculum is in there, but it’s mostly an adventure show. Her whole world was depicted very accurately, and the producers at GBH went and did workshops and found native Alaskan writers and producers and worked very closely with them. It was not without its bumps, but we learned a lot in that experience, and it became about telling stories about people that you’re not familiar with [and] introducing kids to other worlds. This was a world right in the United States that most kids, most producers at PBS, didn’t know much about. A lot of what we did know was incorrect. It was an amazing experience making that show because we all learned a lot, and we learned a lot about what to do and what not to do when doing a show like that. It’s opened our eyes to how many different cultures there are in and around the U.S. We could be introducing these worlds to other kids, but even more important is kids seeing themselves and saying, ‘Oh, that’s like what my family does, and I’ve never seen that on television before.’ It was a fascinating experience, so I just have to recommend it to everyone to hire those producers that come from places that you wouldn’t expect and experiment. That’s exactly the kind of thing that public broadcasting is going to do that no one else is going to do. In my mind, I was saying no one will acquire this because this is so specific. It turned out that the more specific we were, the more general the stories became, just about a kid and adventures. It was really an interesting experience. I’m happy to be able to share that because, to me, that was a total public television moment.
TV KIDS: What are some of the core themes and brand qualities that you have to keep top of mind with PBS KIDS programming?
SIMENSKY: Things like curiosity, enthusiasm and optimism. We’ve tried to make our brand be about optimism. We’ve been working on that for years. I think we got into that because we saw that it wasn’t really out there. A lot of shows were kind of cynical, and a lot of other shows just seemed earnest and cute. We wanted to find something that captured what we were trying to do, and optimism really captured it. Then our marketing department did some brand testing and found that people did associate optimism with us. I think it’s that hope that people need right now that’s so important. It’s been a really tough year. When we’ve taken on topics like Covid or racism, we always try to take them to the point where we show that we believe that things ultimately will go the right way. We try to capture all of that in there. That really is the main goal that we have. There’s a little bit of an optimism gap out there, so we’re trying to fill that gap.
TV KIDS: With the entrance of so many SVODs, AVODs, apps and on-demand services targeting young ones, what do you see as the role and value of public broadcasting in addressing kids today? What can public broadcasters offer children that commercial linear and nonlinear services cannot?
SIMENSKY: The distribution question is just incredible. We sat down and said, let’s make a list of the questions we have about distribution as we figure out distribution. We wrote up seven pages of questions, and that’s not one question per page, that’s 25 questions on a page. We just had so many questions. Some are very broad, and some are very specific. The world is changing so rapidly in terms of how people get their content, and kids, of course, try things out first. They are the early adopters of everything. We need to be there for them, so figuring out how to do that, and if each platform requires something slightly different, do you have the people to do that, do you have the staff to figure this out? It’s so much more complex than it used to be. We spend a lot of time trying to answer all those questions on those seven pages. It’s taking us a long time. The twin problems of discoverability and distribution are the biggest things we’re dealing with. It used to be funding. We’re past that. Funding seems like a quaint problem to solve compared to navigating the world as it’s changing. We’re making plans, and things are changing as we’re making those plans. We all have to be so nimble. Our companies probably aren’t known for being nimble, so it’s a huge challenge, and to get everybody who’s not part of programming to understand what we’re dealing with and going along with us. It’s a very interesting time.