Up to date information about children’s entertainment – film, TV, DVD and more…. from founder and president of KIDS FIRST! Ranny Levy

Wilbur Moms – Who’s Behind the Show?

If you have not discovered “Wilbur” on Discovery Kids, you’re missing something. “WILBUR” is designed to help preschoolers develop early reading skills by increasing their print recognition, their oral vocabulary and their listening comprehension. It shows actual text onscreen which helps kids learn that print on a page symbolizes words, that these words tell a story and that the pictures shown represent what the words say. In each episode, Wilbur (the animated calf star)and his barnyard buddies find themselves in a new situation or dilemma that is solved by searching for solutions in books. Unlike other literacy-based children’s shows, “Wilbur” demonstrates concepts such as reading from left to right across the page and from top to bottom. Wilbur also points out how you turn the page to read the next page and points to the words with his hoof as he reads so you child may read along.

Kudos to the show’s creators, Jill Luedtke, Kim Anton and Tracey Hornbuckle – three San Diego are moms who recognized the need to develop early literacy skills in young children from their own experiences with their kids and were driven to venture into the world of television production – no small feat. Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting with Jill, Kim and Tracey an asked them about their experience and their success. Here’s part of our conversation.

RL: Congratulations on the success of your series, “Wilbur.” I’d like to talk with you more about your show that aired in December, “The Wright Stuff/The Broken Toy” which celebrates the Wright brother’s first flight at KittyHawk. Is this show based on a particular book or story? Why did you choose this?

JKT: Every “Wilbur” episode is based around a particular situation and how to solve the problem. In this one, the issue is “how to fly.” This book is about the Wright Brothers and Wilbur and Dasha represent the brothers. The story also addresses the idea of not giving up and persevering. It is not based on a particular book – all the books we create for “Wilbur” are fictional and it’s our dream that they will be released in book format sometime in the near future. They’re all written in rhyming cadence and beautifully illustrated.

RL: The three of you developed this show which now airs on Discovery Kids. Tell me about your backgrounds. I have read that you’re three moms. Are you educators? Librarians? What is your professional background? What possessed you to develop a TV show? That’s no small feat.

JKT: We have varied backgrounds. Kim has a degree in marketing. She worked in the financial industry for a major bank and had nothing to do with kids’ TV except that at the time we started this except that she had three daughters ages eight, four and one. Tracey worked in advertising and sales. She worked for The New Yorker Magazine selling advertising. This, in the long run helped us to persevere. Jill is an attorney. She didn’t know anything about the children’s business. She helped us to “not be afraid” and to be ready to meet with anyone at any time. One funny thing is that a lot of people would meet with us because they weren’t intimidated by us. After all, we were just three moms with no experience. Then, we hooked up with Andrea Blain, our publicist, about ten years ago and she go us amazing press for our original series of three video titles. What got us into a lot of the children’s entertainment offices was the press that we generated through Andrea’s efforts. I think they asked, “how did these moms get this press?” Jill is an amazing researcher and she took on researching the literacy side of the show. That led us to establishing a relationship with a lot of academics. We think of Jill now as our “preschool teacher” because of all the research she has done. The joy of working with Discovery Kids is that they “got” our vision and allowed us to be involved in every aspect of the series. We feel Discovery Kids is a perfect home for “Wilbur” because Ready Set Learn is commercial free and sponsor free. As we went through the journey, we said “no” to a number of potential partners because we didn’t think they understood our vision. Our lawyer thought we were crazy but, it’s turned out well.

RL. Discovery Kids has a great online site that describes the educational goals of “Wilbur” which I’m going to recommend to our readers. Tell me, do you think the program has been successful? How you gauge the program’s success.

JKT: A lot of people contact us through our website and we have yet to get a negative comment! They tell us that their two- or four-year-old loves it and carries books around the house. Discovery Kids tells us that with “Wilbur” in the Ready-Set-Learn block, they’re seeing an increase in viewership. It also airs in Canada on CBS, and in Latin America in Spanish and Portugese. Our biggest cheerleader is Amy Sprecker who we met prior to signing with Discovery Kids. She and Erin Wanner are executive producers. Marjorie Kaplan, who’s in charge of Discovery Kids and is the executive in charge of production is amazing and bought into it right away.

RL: Tell me more about your future plans are for “Wilbur.” Are the three of you, either together or separately working on any new shows? Is there anything you can tell us to look for?

JKT: Yes, we are planning “Wilbur’s” second season. In February, Discovery Kids (distributed by Genius Products) is coming out with a compilation DVD that will have “Wilbur” included with other titles. We have some other things in the works but it’s too early to talk about. The one thing that is certain is that whatever we do will promote literacy. We feel that we just got a little bit of a breather; we just finished the first 26 episodes in the summer then jumped into the PR and publicity.

RL. What advice would you give to producers who are yearning to pitch a show to Discovery Kids or any network? What did you and your team find out that you wish you had known before you started?

JKT: We’ve been asked this before. We attribute our success to the four G’s – a Great idea, Girlfriends, Guts and God. Faith in God helped us through a lot of it. We did a lot of research such as watching the credits at the end of all the preschool shows on TV. Then, we’d try to contact them. There was a common thread. We would read a KidScreen Magazine and see that Nelvana had three of the top four shows listed. Then, we say, let’s go talk with Nelvana. And, we would. Every time we met with someone, such as the creators of Barney, we’d always ask them if there was anyone else they would recommend. People who we talked with ten years ago are in great places now. If you are passionate about your idea – you can find a way. A lot our “no’s” made us assess our idea and we learned to stay true. We would try to analyze and take little bits of wisdom from every meeting and go forward. If you don’t have the money yourself, finding an added value partner who can do the production and can fund it themselves can be a huge help. Raising the money is the single hardest thing. We’re glad we didn’t know when we started that it would take ten years. Sometimes you don’t need to know how hard the work is or you wouldn’t even start it. When you look at contracts and all the legal stuff you need – it’s just so hard. We got a great entertainment attorney early on. That helped us a lot. David Mitchell, the creator of Jay Jay gave us that advice when we asked him, in hindsight, what was important.

The players are so big because it’s all about the bottom line. But, like Don Quixote, you have to focus and persevere. We haven’t tapped into it yet, but I believe there are ways to build a business like this on the internet. But, if you want to participate in the broadcast world, then you have to play their game. The Canadians are very helpful, they subsidize shows.

RL. Where are the three of you based?

JKT: San Diego, CA. http://www.wilburtv.com/

“WILBUR” is a production of Mercury Filmworks, in association with Chilco Productions, EKA Distribution, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Discovery Kids.

READY SET LEARN! is an award-winning, commercial-free programming block with a curriculum that acknowledges preschoolers’ innate curiosity and is designed to foster optimism and resilience in their expanding exploration of the world. It airs on both the Discovery Kids Channel and TLC. Discovery Kids Channel lets kids of all ages (from preschoolers to tweens and teens) explore their world from their point of view. This 24-hour digital cable channel provides entertaining, engaging, and high-quality real-world programming that kids enjoy and parents trust. Every day, kids can learn about science, adventure, exploration and natural history through documentaries, reality shows, scripted dramas and animated stories. Garnering multiple Emmys as well as awards for quality children’s television, Discovery Kids is committed to satisfying kids’ natural curiosity about… well… everything.

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