In London to promote Disney Jr's latest children's TV series, Nancy Kanter smiles broadly as she puts on her squeakiest voice in an imitation of Lamb Chop, the cute sock puppet sheep from her childhood. She's nothing like what you'd expect of the VP of the world's best known entertainment brand. Yes, she's poised and articulate and her wealth of knowledge is incredible, but she is also one of the warmest and most affable women I've met in a long time.
We've been chatting about the meteoric success of Disney Jr's latest children's TV series, Henry Hugglemonster. Starring the voice talents of Brenda Blethyn, Brian Blessed and Geri Halliwell, the show has been watched by a staggering 5.1million viewers, including a third of all kids ages four to seven, and nearly one in three mums with their toddlers. The success of the show is unheard of in the industry.
But what makes Henry Hugglemonster so special that children and their mums love it so much?
The challenge, says Kanter, is to create a TV show that genuinely gets the kids engaged: a world they will fall in love with, and characters the kids identify with.
At Disney Jr, they start by focusing on entertainment value - what will really hook the kids? What will get them giggling? They come up with fantastic scenarios which feel like they've been plucked straight out of my six-year-old daughter's head, like Henry Hugglemonster's grandma training for the Iron Grandma race using ultra springy shoes.
Next up, they look at what the 'take away' will be for each episode. With Disney Jr, the emphasis is on helping children learn social values and emotional life skills: bravery, independence, a positive attitude. Seeing a bit of themselves in a fun-loving five-year-old monster as he tries to creatively solve a problem or challenge himself to do better can actually prompt the kids to do the same in real life.
But there's more to it than just making sure there is a moral to the every story. So many TV shows take this same approach and get it completely and utterly wrong. Think about it, mums, how many of those (supposedly) educational or moralistic shows make you want to poke your eyes out? They may tick all the right boxes, but there's something missing - something huge. With the majority of kids shows, the children watching just don't care about the characters... and why would they? The producers have thought about storylines and cool animation, but have left out all those things that help the kids feel connected to the characters.
This is where Disney Jr really shines. They know that the biggest challenge is to help the kids feel an affinity with the characters in the show. They have entire teams working on creating characters with real emotions, fears, interests and idiosyncrasies, and build the relationships between characters. With Henry and his sister you'll see all the same things I do with my two little ones - the closeness you only ever get with a brother or sister, and the fiery sibling rivalry too.
With shows like Doc McStuffins, the impact of having crafted in-depth lead characters is like nothing we've ever seen before. The show has been applauded for its portrayal of a young black girl who wants to become a doctor like her mother. Disney Jr's VP says she was incredibly moved by the 'groundswell of affirmation' that inspired 130 black female doctors to create a "We are Doc McStuffins" collage. That's really saying something!
So now we've got an entertaining storyline, a take-away message for each episode, a richly woven fictional world, and believable characters the kids can identify with. What next?
It's time to actually take it out to the kids and see how they respond. The research team pick up a 'storybook' version of the episode and head out to test it on children ages three to six from a wide variety of neighbourhoods, socio-economic backgrounds and ethnicities. While introducing the characters and reading this episode's narrative, the researchers watch the children closely. Did they understand the message? Did they understand the vocabulary? Which characters really stood out for them? Which bits had them mesmerized?
After testing, they head back to the drawing board and tweak the story, adjust the vocabulary, and rewrite any sections that didn't seem to resonate with the kids.
Throughout the process, the creators work with educational advisors from the newly formed Disney Junior Educational Resource Group to make sure that each and every episode is perfect for their audience's needs.
I have to confess... in my house, television often features as a pseudo babysitter - it keeps the kids out of my hair while I'm trying to cook. Should I be watching it with them?
According to Nancy Kanter, the children's learning experiences are amplified as soon as mum gets involved. The kids can ask questions and discuss the show afterwards, and mum gets to know exactly what her kids are watching and what they enjoy about it. When mum is involved, "it's the gateway to significant learning".
You were also involved in the new Winnie the Pooh television series, Tales of Friendship. I absolutely love Pooh and could listen to the Stephen Fry version on audiobook every day of the week. Robert Webb seems like such an unusual choice - does he do it justice?
Both Nancy and her assistant smile at the mention of Robert Webb. It's obvious that they're charmed by him and by his interpretation of all the characters in A A Milne's famous stories. Robert has two little girls so he knows exactly what the children love about the stories, says Kanter. He got right into the characters and the result is delightful.
Do parents ever worry about Pooh's use of nonsense words, or about the fact that the main character is, well, a bit daft?
If one of the characters uses nonsense words, or has a lisp, it does come up as a worry for parents... but there isn't a detriment to the kids. In fact, sometimes it's quite the opposite. The children see Winnie the Pooh as being charming and delightful, and they recognize that what he's saying or doing is silly.
It gives them a sense of mastery: "I'm smarter than Pooh!". Well good. And it gets me thinking.. maybe Disney Jr can create a show for mid-life-crisis dads too?
Disney Jr have just announced the start of production of the second series of HENRY HUGGLEMONSTER, which is set to return to screens from Autumn 2014. The series will air on Disney Junior in more than 150 countries worldwide. We'll post our favourite clips from the first series over on Really Kid Friendly later this week.
We'd love to read your opinions of children's television... which shows are worth watching? Which ones make you want to poke your eyes out? Please leave a comment below or over on Really Kid Friendly.
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