Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The Mother of 'Blue' and 'Dora' Takes a Step Up at Nickelodeon

Brown Johnson.NYT
Photo by Ruby Washington/The New York Times
In her new job, Brown Johnson of Nickelodeon will oversee more than half the programs for preschoolers on television. [caption]

Brown Johnson is one of the great stars in the modern world of children's television. She believed that pre-schoolers needed great attention paid to them by television, and there just had to be a new, big, idea for them since Sesame Street. Brown's team came roaring out with Blues Clues, and Nick Jr. was on it's way to becoming the most powerful force in television for kids under 6.

Well, finally the world's catching on; here's an article from yesterday's New York Times about her recent promotion. I've known her for many years (Brown was the first person I met in the TV business), and it's been thrilling to watch her develop and nurture her vision.
February 28, 2005

The Mother of 'Blue' and 'Dora' Takes a Step Up at Nickelodeon


After 18 years at Nickelodeon, Brown Johnson has developed a reputation for developing hit programs for preschoolers, like "Blue's Clues" and "Dora the Explorer." But what has really set Ms. Johnson apart is what has become known in the business as "the pause."

Many of the shows she has helped nurture make use of a choreographed pause during the program, one long enough to let children actively respond to the television, solving puzzles and problems along with the characters. It's the pause that allows young viewers to feel like part of the story, not just passive watchers.

"It makes them feel smart, and it makes them feel strong, and it makes them feel powerful," Ms. Johnson said in an interview. "No one had ever asked for that degree of audience participation before."

Ms. Johnson, 52, may be feeling a little smarter and stronger herself. Today, she will be named executive creative director of preschool television for Nickelodeon, a growing part of cable network division of Viacom, according to Cyna Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon Television. The promotion makes her one of the most powerful people in children's television in the country, overseeing more than half of all preschool programming on broadcast television, including public television.

"I really felt like I wanted to do preschool. It was one of the reasons I came to Nickelodeon," she said.

She will now be in charge of Nickelodeon's three outlets for young children's programming seen in more than 88 million households: Nick Jr., a five-hour block for preschoolers each weekday on Nickelodeon; Noggin, the network's commercial-free digital service; and CBS's weekend line-up of Nick Jr. reruns. All together, that amounts to 112 hours of programming for young children weekly. In comparison, Playhouse Disney offers 49 hours and PBS offers approximately 38 hours each week.

Ms. Johnson's promotion also underlines the rapid rise of the Nickelodeon properties like Nick Jr. and Noggin. Over all, revenue for Viacom's cable networks division, which also includes MTV Networks, Comedy Central and BET, increased 17 percent last year, to $6.6 billion. Although the company does not break out revenue for individual networks, Ms. Zarghami said that Nickelodeon's preschool properties generate "easily over $100 million" in annual revenue from cable operators, advertisers and consumer products business.

But Nickelodeon's financial success has grown alongside its reputation for producing engaging and educational children's programs, a role that was once reserved for public television alone. PBS has long used the need for shows like "Sesame Street" as a shield to defend itself against political attacks, including a recent one over a show featuring lesbian parents, because children's programming on private television was seen as violent, mindless or crassly commercial. The popularity of shows like "Blue's Clues" has made it harder for PBS to make that argument.

Alice Cahn, vice president of development and programming at the Cartoon Network, said that "Brown and her colleagues at Nickelodeon created the first commercial challenge to public broadcasting" in the preschool market. "They looked very smartly at the market," said Ms. Cahn, who, like most people in children's television, cannot find enough good things to say about her rival.

Ms. Johnson, who was allowed to watch only one hour of television a week growing up on Long Island, also takes on her new position at a time when attitudes about children and television have shifted. Specialists say that parents today worry less about whether it is good for their children to watch television. Instead they are interested in quality.

"Like it or not, parents are not guilty at all about calling the TV set a baby sitter for them. It allows them to make dinner or get dressed or take a shower," Ms. Johnson said. "So whatever is on, you better make it good. You'd better make it the very best it can be."

Ms. Johnson's first job in television was secretary to Robert W. Pittman, then head of MTV. She joined Nickelodeon in 1987, managing shows like "Clarissa Explains It All" and "Wild and Crazy Kids" before shifting exclusively to preschool programming. She said that she was fascinated by how her daughter - who is now a first-year college student - viewed the world when she was young, and Johnson wanted to translate that wonderment to television.

Ms. Johnson has led Nick Jr. since 1993, when she developed "Blue's Clues" and "Dora the Explorer." The characters - a boy with his dog, Blue, and a bilingual Latina heroine - inquisitively turn to the audience to pull them into the plot.

The shows were also an implicit challenge to "Sesame Street" which had set the standard for children's programming since it was first aired in 1969. Sesame Street also changed the way that people thought about educational programming because it leveraged the power and forms of television, including commercials and game shows, to capture a viewer's attention.

"PBS, for better or for worse, or Sesame Workshop, started with education, whereas I think on Nick Jr. our goal is to start with the child," Ms. Johnson said. When she started thinking about creating preschool programs, she found the existing shows patronizing. She said the programs were "telling kids what to do all the time."

Johnson brought together child development specialists, storytellers, educators, poets and puppeteers to figure out what children wanted to watch on television.

"Research makes a successful show. I think showing it to kids makes all the difference in the world," Johnson said.

Based on that research, she began moving preschool programs toward longer narratives and away from the short episodic form that was pioneered by Sesame Street.

"People were making TV for kids that was lots of short pieces strung together like beads on a string. I thought 'We can tell a story that's longer, because otherwise they're all going to have A.D.D.,'" Ms. Johnson explained, using the abbreviation for attention deficit disorder. So she developed the narratives of "Blue's Clues" and "Dora the Explorer" to span the duration of the program.

Karen Gruenberg, vice president of content for Sesame Workshop, said, "What Brown has been able to do is create an environment that really draws kids in." Ms. Johnson developed a distinctive style of animation for "Blue's Clues" and created a different look and approach to many of her shows.

Identifying shows early is critical in children's television. It generally takes about two years to create new programming and costs millions of dollars. Once a program is in production, the cost of each episode ranges from $20,000 to $600,000.

One of Ms. Johnson's more unusual choices was "LazyTown," introduced last year. The show is loosely based on a live show performed by an Icelandic acrobatic champion named Magnus Scheving. In "LazyTown," Mr. Scheving plays a health-conscious superhero who drinks water and snacks on apples and carrots, and tries to steer the town's children away from junk-food-loving Robbie Rotten. Johnson said her colleagues told her she was crazy to develop the concept. The program, which is shot in Iceland, combines actors, puppets and animation, and is set to catchy pop music.

Part of Ms. Johnson's success at developing shows is that she has been able to appeal to both children and their parents, much the way Sesame Street did when it started. Dr. Michael Cohen, a psychologist and researcher who has studied family media consumption, said successful programs understood what parents thought was safe and engaging. "The kid does not have control of the TV yet," said Dr. Cohen. "So the decision maker is still the mother."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

From the Business Section of the New York Times, February 28, 2005