CEO Lisa Henson offers TV Kids insight into how The Jim Henson Company is seeking out and developing innovative new shows like the upcoming Dot., adapted from the book by Randi Zuckerberg.
For more than five decades, The Jim Henson Company has been delivering high-quality, parent-friendly content for kids everywhere. Building on her father’s legacy, CEO Lisa Henson is ensuring that the company continues to keep up with the rapid changes in how young ones consume content.
TV KIDS: Dot. has been getting a lot of buzz. How did The Jim Henson Company come to be associated with that project?
HENSON: We saw the book, which we thought was adorable and unique. It’s a very simple book, but the subject matter is something that we hadn’t seen yet in terms of literary properties or even TV properties being pitched. Dot is a digital native, a young girl who is very comfortable with tech and it doesn’t detract from her real-life activities. The technology she uses adds to the richness of her life. We immediately saw that as an arena that is unique and needed today.
TV KIDS: How are you keeping returning brands like Dinosaur Train fresh?
HENSON: I’m glad you brought up Dinosaur Train because we just did what we call season four, but actually the show premiered in 2009 and it’s been continuously in production for seven years. We love that show. We feel it has endless creative possibilities because the Mesozoic Era is so rich with creatures and science that kids are unfamiliar with. We never feel tapped out with Dinosaur Train. We have so much fun coming up with the event programs and the specials and the stunt weeks that keep the show fresh. We’re layering in new subjects, new vehicles, new characters all the time, so the original episodes kids are familiar with are still good, but we’re freshening it all the time with new elements. It’s hard to come up with a show that will break through the critical first two to three years in which it will either succeed on a big level or quietly go away as a minor success. Dinosaur Train is our perennial success story.
TV KIDS: Is there a different process for developing a property for a digital platform as compared with making one for a traditional linear broadcaster?
HENSON: In minor ways, yes; in the major ways, no. The shows are distinguished by having good characters, strong story lines and unique curriculums, and those qualities are going to be the same in either way the show is premiered. Perhaps the differences are in the way we craft the deal or the way the show is administered.
TV KIDS: When kids have so many other distractions, how do you attract them and keep them tuned in?
HENSON: It’s interesting that Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are all preferring to do programs that are at least 11 minutes long. The idea that the programming should be short and oriented to short attention spans isn’t holding true for those digital platforms. These digital network platforms want stories that are engaging and 11 minutes long at least.
TV KIDS: Are you developing any content outside of the preschool segment?
HENSON: We have a good amount of development in both the bridge age group and also 6 and up. We have a couple of things in development for teens or tweens. Historically as a company we’ve done family entertainment and fantasy/sci-fi. People have enjoyed The Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, so we are developing properties that will bring those fantasy qualities to a younger level. That is not to say that we are developing Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal for ages 6 and up. However, we are developing shows with the qualities that were seen in those Creature Shop shows, the animatronics and the high-fantasy characters.
TV KIDS: Tell us about your new series Splash and Bubbles.
HENSON: We are working with PBS on Splash and Bubbles. It’s a very big project for us. It’s utilizing Digital Puppetry and therefore all the best talent at the company is engaged with it. The characters, story lines and settings in Splash and Bubbles are grounded in a marine biology curriculum that focuses on themes of diversity, individuality, interconnectedness and the celebration of learning and discovery. We are currently going into production on 80 11-minute stories.
TV KIDS: How have you approached bringing an educational curriculum to shows while still keeping them engaging and entertaining?
HENSON: PBS is a channel that likes to have meaningful content and a strong element of learning. We also like to bring to those shows a secondary curricular level that is playful, friendly and adventurous, so that they don’t feel like lessons. For instance, learning about dinosaurs and the Mesozoic Era is often a parade of facts and kids memorizing names of dinosaurs. So with Dinosaur Train, we went about it a different way. We wanted to teach general natural sciences and we emphasized the concept that dinosaurs are animals too. So when we’re learning about dinosaurs we’re learning about them as animals. We’re comparing a four-legged dinosaur to a four-legged cow that eats grass, so they’re both herbivores. We’re keeping it quite simple and easy to relate to and making it relevant for kids who are watching it. Similarly, with Splash and Bubbles, we want to familiarize kids with these characters. We call them the citizens of the sea, and Reeftown, the neighborhood that Splash [a yellow fusilier fish] lives in, is like a neighborhood with characters that you would meet, perhaps along the lines of Sesame Street—a block populated by characters who became very familiar to the audience. We really want to make these subjects, which are somewhat faraway, feel immediate and relevant for kids.