Playhouse Disney Interview
iChild recently met Nancy Kanter, Senior Vice President of Playhouse Disney, when she flew over from the States.
iChild: What sets Playhouse Disney apart?
Nancy: There’s an incredibly competitive, crowded marketplace in the UK, with kids' channels, and we’ve spent a lot of time researching the programmes we commission and produce. There are so many choices for parents, and the things that define us and set us apart are; the focus on story-telling, the characters and the music: the essence of both the Disney and Playhouse brands.
Disney programmes have kids as the main audience, but very much with the parents' response in mind. What do they want to hear and what are the messages that are important to them? Parents see Disney and Playhouse Disney as a very safe place for their child, nothing too scary, nothing violent, nor inappropriate, and this trust has been built up by Disney over a number of years. Playhouse is also not advertisement supported, which is quite unique (apart from BBC in the UK).
iChild: Talk us through the ‘Whole Child Curriculum’ that you use.
Nancy: Something that is pretty well recognised and established, is that kids have different milestones in their development. You want your children to recognise their colours, plus number and letter recognition, but equally important are things like social skills, emotional skills, problem solving, physical development, and creative development. It’s this range of skills that is important for a pre-schooler and you don’t want to sacrifice one for the other.
Playhouse Disney want to have that variety and range of content, i.e. Mikey Mouse Clubhouse might have a specific Maths skill building emphasis, sorting, calculating etc. You then have something like Handy Many which is more about social and emotional skills; how do you be a good friend and make good choices? Jungle Junction which recently launched in the UK, talks about the whole world of the environment, so kids can understand about the Natural World, their place in it, how you take care of it, nurture it, respect nature, all in a gentle way that doesn’t scare kids, but makes them think about it.
iChild: You have a ‘Parent Panel’, when you initially develop programmes, how does that work?
Nancy: We do an enormous amount of in-depth research and testing with mums and kids, when we are at a stage where we’ve cracked the creative of a show, and have made a pilot episode. We send it out to 200-300 families, so they can watch a DVD of the sample episode at home. They keep it for a week or 2, and then fill in an online survey with approximately 80-100 questions giving feedback: for instance, did your child like it? How many times did they watch it? What was the best thing about it? What didn’t you like? We get both the parent's perspective, and the child’s.
In addition to that we do qualitative research, bringing mums and kids into a focus group facility to have a richer and more in depth conversation and to see how engaged the children are with the programme. All of this research, both quantitative and qualitative, helps us see if a programme has all the attributes to make it a success.
Then for shows that are actually already in production, we test every episode script with children and pre-schools with a story-book version of the show. We can see how kids respond to the story: Did they like it? Did they understand it? Are they responding? Very often lessons are learnt by testing it with kids, that we never would have reached on our own. That’s then fed back in, and the script re-written or tweaked, to make it a stronger episode.
iChild: Could you tell us about Jungle Junction?
Nancy: It launched in the UK, quickly followed by the US and had a spectacular premier and launch. I saw a sample animation for it 4 years ago at Cartoon Forum, and fell in love with the idea of these animals on wheels. We commissioned the series, and included the aspect of the environmentally friendly curriculum. It’s produced all out of the UK by Spider Eye in London and Cornwall. Kids seem to be loving it, and we’re really happy with how it’s taken off so far.
iChild: What are your goals and future plans?
Nancy: Playhouse Disney is now the number 2 pre-school channel, after CBeebies, and over the last few years we’ve dramatically increased our reach (almost tripled in the last year). We want to continue that success, and continue to make great shows that kids want to watch. We’re committed to producing shows globally, and exporting them globally. We have new episodes of Imagination Movers coming up.
Imagination Movers is our only live action show at the moment. They are a real band: 4 young men out of New Orleans, all friends living in the same neighbourhood who wanted to be a band. They started playing at their kids birthday parties; they are fantastic musicians for adults as well as children. They are engaging, energetic, with a great message about problem solving and creative thinking. We’ve just finished rolling out the 2nd series which starts in January. It’s message is to encourage kids to try a lot of different solutions if you have a problem - don’t give up - with 4 or 5 songs in every episode.
MickeyMouse Clubhouse has new episodes airing in the spring, and a 3rd series of Handy Manny is also rolling out.
There’s also a new series in production, so lots to look out for!