Linda Simensky, Senior Director of Children’s Programming for PBS will be honored along with Missy Halperin, Senior VP Talent Relations for Fox Broadcasting at the Zimmer Children’s Museum’s 7th Annual Discovery Award Dinner on Thursday, November 8, 2007 at The Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The Discovery Award is presented to extraordinary individuals who are builders, creators and leaders in their fields and communities.
Linda is a highly respected and admired professional in the children’s entertainment industry. She brings a thorough understanding of children’s entertainment stemming from a background at Nickelodeon, where she worked in various positions within the programming and animation departments and Cartoon Network where she served as senior vice president of original animation overseeing the development and production of all new shows such as “The Powerpuff Girls,” “Samurai Jack,” “Courage the Cowardly Dog,” “Johnny Bravo” and “Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law.”
In her role at PBS KIDS which she joined in 2003, Simensky collaborates with producers, co-production partners and distributors throughout development, production, post-production and broadcast for existing and new series and has been involved in launching many new shows including “Curious George,” “Super Why,” “FETCH! with Ruff Ruffman” and “WordGirl.”
I spoke with her last week about receiving the Discovery Award and to find out more about this woman whose influence over children’s programming is unsurpassed and who, at age 40 with a great job at Cartoon Network decided to take the plunge into the PBS KIDS pool.
RL: Congratulations on receiving the Discovery Award by the Zimmer Children’s Museum. Obviously, this is a high honor and you are in good company. What does this award mean to you?
LS. Thank you. I’m honored to be acknowledged by the Zimmer Museum. After I learned I was receiving the award and had looked into them a little deeper, I realized how similar their goals are to PBS’s goals. So, if the Zimmer Museum has decided to give me this award then maybe it is a sign that we at PBS are achieving our goals.
RL. You came to PBS KIDS four years ago after a successful career at Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. How did that background influence your approach for program development at PBS KIDS?
LS. I left Cartoon Network the week of my 40th birthday. The thing that got me interested in coming to PBS was watching TV through my son’s eyes. It changed how I looked at programming. I found that I wouldn’t let him watch some of the shows I had created while at Cartoon Network. That was a bit of a crisis for me. I found myself more interested in what was going on at PBS. Then, the job opened up and I volunteered for it. I came in with a desire to make the shows that I wanted my kids to see. I think cartoons that are the most fun to watch, like “Fetch” or “WordGirl,” are designed for a kid but can be enjoyed by an adult as well. It goes back to the model that “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company” created years ago - making shows that are fun, funny, have a cool quality to them and are really innovative. I was inspired by “The Electric Company.” It was my favorite show when I was 8-years-old. I came here challenged to make educational shows at a time of my life when I should have been kicking back a bit. But, I like the idea of challenging myself and I thought, “If I had so many ideas about PBS, then why don’t I go work there!” I feel pretty lucky. I’m getting to experiment here more than I would have anyplace else.
RL: Last year, you spoke at KidScreen about the importance of multi-platform delivery for children’s programming today. There are so many formats and possibilities, how does PBS KIDS select which platforms to pursue and why?
LS. I should point out that PBS in general, as opposed to just me, is assessing and pursuing new platforms as I work strictly on the TV side. The things we consider when we are determining whether or not a show is a good property are: will it work on the web, on a pod-cast, does it translate in an interesting way into games or other challenges? Can you take it outside and play it? That’s the direction that media is going. We’re just really preparing ourselves for where things will go in the future. Visually, we have gone from film to TV to cell phones. I joke about how the screen keeps getting smaller and smaller. I’m a bit of a Luddite on that. On the other hand, when I’m in places like airports, my son wants to play the bowling game on my phone. I think that’s where it comes in handy. I see how my kids react to the computer. They see it as an alternative to TV. My two-year-old daughter doesn’t differentiate between them.
RL: PBS KIDS has been focusing on more math and science content for ages six to eight. Tell me more about what your plans are in this area in the future and how you gauge a program’s success.
LS: What we are really doing is filling gaps. For example, we have a number of literacy shows. The reason we have so many is that we believe that no one show can fill all areas of literacy-skill building or reach all children. Kids develop at different paces and learn in different ways and having a variety of shows allows us to address this.
There are not a lot of science shows for kids on TV right now. Science can be a lot of fun yet science education doesn’t really start until second grade so we’re working to fill that gap for the younger kids. We’re attacking science and math the same way we did with literacy, by creating multiple shows that use different learning styles. With math, we’re trying to show that it can be used to solve everyday problems. “Cyberchase” is great at demonstrating this for ages six and up. My father just started watching “Cyberchase” and he’s in his 70s. He came across it and was impressed that it really taught math. When I first got here, that was the show that I kept pointing to because it infused the math curriculum into the stories so well.
RL: How do you gauge success in public television?
LS: Secretly, if I’m at the playground and a Mom talks about a particular show or PBS KIDS in general, I feel that I’m done. It works. But in-house, we have a more complex way of evaluating success of our programs or initiatives. That’s the good thing about this multi-platform universe. A show can do okay on TV but be a huge success on the Internet. We look at how much media and press a show gets. We listen to our member stations to assess how much they like it, if it achieves their mission, if it meets what their viewers want and what the station wants. We’re not just looking at ratings and making a quick decision. As time goes on, we look at all the different points of impact. A lot of our shows are also great in the outreach area, like “Between the Lions,” which has proven successes as learning workshops that include kids, parents and educators.
RL: What advice would you give to producers who are yearning to pitch a show to PBS KIDS? What elements are most important to you and your team?
LS: I would tell them first and foremost, to look at the things we’ve been talking about: being educational, entertaining and fun, and having strong characters and storylines. Make a show that you would want to watch yourself. Many people come in and pitch a show that they would never be able to watch themselves. And look at how you can move the medium forward. Don’t just copy what’s already been done. Experiment, try things out. Move TV beyond where it is right now. We only add a few new programs a year. I challenge everybody; those who take the challenge get the slot. It’s like adding a show such as “Curious George” - the character is known and loved, but turning it into a show for PBS was a challenge.
RL: What key things are you looking at in terms of programming changes in the next 3 to 5 years?
LS: I see the variety of shows growing. I imagine that anytime you turn PBS on you would see something innovative, interesting and unusual. I feel that “Sesame Street” is the perfect example. It’s not a new show but it’s always innovative. They incorporate new things into their show every year. My goal for PBS is that kids can always find something they would watch. And, the shows would all feel distinctly “PBS.”
RL: You have a two-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old son. What do they watch on television?
LS: My daughter has just started watching TV. And, she’s fallen in love with “Barney.” I gave her some “Super Why” DVDs and she showed me where she hid them so she could find them later. My son is a big “Fetch” fan. He likes “WordGirl,” particularly the segment where Captain Huggy Face dances. He watches Cartoon Network as well - “Pokemon” and action shows. And he enjoys “SpongeBob.” He’s just discovered the Harry Potter books so we read a lot of that. When he turned seven, I told him that my gift was to read him every Harry Potter book. We’ve been very busy with that.