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Children Will Listen: Q&A With Sandra Sheppard, Director of Children’s and Educational Media at WNET

By Michelle Michalos
Monday, March 7th, 2011
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Sandra Sheppard

At THIRTEEN, we’re dedicated to creating programs that spark children’s imaginations and fuel learning — with no commercial agenda. Our commitment to this goal grows stronger every year. As Sandra Sheppard, Director of Children’s and Educational Media at WNET and Executive Producer of Cyberchase, says, “Our goal as a public media producer is to make sure that children’s screen time is valuable.”

Sheppard spoke with THIRTEEN about creating content that educates, entertains, and has lasting value.

Q: Education has been at the core of our mission since our founding. Fifty years later, why is it still important?

A: Our mission has always been to harness the power of television and other media to positively impact the life of our public. We’ve always had a stake in improving the lives of children and their families, and serving the needs of the underserved. Today, that goal is more critical than ever. When you look at the educational progress reports, it’s clear that we as a country need to do better.

Q: What are the educational goals of our children’s programs?

A: Our goal is to create programs that tap into children’s natural curiosity to motivate them, challenge them, and help them develop intellectual skills and life skills. We do that by embedding content in character-rich stories that are playful, entertaining, and addictive in the most positive sense of the word – from the math in Cyberchase and the performing arts in Angelina Ballerina, to the history in our brand-new Mission U.S. video games. We also work hard to make sure the programs we create are child-centric, and are very careful about modeling characters who think and learn from experience, and who make mistakes but get up again and go out into the world and solve problems. We do a lot of research to get it right. The ultimate question is: have we made a difference in that child’s life? Do they know more having watched our series or consumed our online content than they did before? And we’re tough. We ask those questions because at the end of the day if they haven’t learned more, we haven’t done our job. So we’re very rigorous in our research and evaluation.

Q: How do you measure the impact of our programs on viewers?

A: We have a core group of advisors and educators who evaluate understanding of content by youngsters both before and after they watch our programs. The National Science Foundation, which has supported Cyberchase since its inception, funded a landmark study examining the impact of television, online, and hands-on learning, using Cyberchase as the model. Results showed that kids would learn math skills from the television show and apply them online, which is very exciting. It affirms that the work we’re doing is making a real difference, and that a smartly designed on-air and online package can have real impact.

Q: What are the benefits of producing non-commercial children’s programs – and the challenges?

A: The benefit is that we have a very captive audience and they’re consuming content on many different platforms at a record pace. At the same time, it’s a hugely competitive landscape, so we need to be as creative as possible to make sure our content, which is grounded in education, is highly entertaining. We have to capture children’s attention and keep them coming back again and again, which can be challenging to do these days. Twenty years ago, there weren’t 24-hour cable channels dedicated to kids programming. So we’ve got to be better at our game. The wonderful thing about public media is that we can develop a show like Cyberchase, which is aimed at improving kids’ math skills, and watch it evolve and expand its audience with each successive season. Now we’re in our eighth season. That wouldn’t happen in commercial television. Our commercial counterparts aren’t going to introduce science or the performing arts or engineering or history to this generation. So we have to keep producing these types of programs – and we have to do it really well.

Q: How do you develop ideas for new programs? Do you work closely with teachers and education consultants?

A: Our ideas are grounded in curriculum. We look carefully at national standards and are very thoughtful about working with educators to make sure the material is meaningful, age-appropriate, and connects to lessons kids are learning in school and in life. Ideas come from everywhere. They come from characters and books, video games, and the many brainstorming sessions I have with my team. Interestingly, Cyberchase came out of brainstorming meeting where we were talking about Star Wars and how we would love to do a show in which the problems were mathematical and there would be good guys and bad guys, but the path to victory would be mind over muscle. In other words — may the mathematical force be with you!

Q: How long does it take to develop an idea for broadcast?

A: The gestation period varies from project to project, but to get it right, it takes time. You need a really strong development team and you need to allow adequate time for a project to fully develop. If you’re working with an original idea, as opposed to a book-based idea, it can take anywhere from six months to a year to create a bible, a series of stories, some designs, and to really get the ethos of the project. In children’s media, we usually need to find co-production partners and often look to the international community for partnerships and funding. Given those factors, two or three years can pass from the time we have an initial idea to the time it hits air and the web, so we’re constantly in development. We’re constantly putting new ideas into the pipeline because our projects have long gestation periods. There are certainly benefits to that because you can tweak and massage and make sure it’s right before it hits air.  I always say it takes passion and patience.

Q: What are some of the new programs we’ll see in 2011?

A: I’m super excited about Noah Comprende, the first foreign language broadband series public media has created for young children. It introduces kids ages 5-8 to Spanish and premieres in April. In February, we launched Get the Math, a reality-style TV show and website introducing tweens and teens to algebra. Later in the year, we’re also releasing a new edition of Mission US, our interactive, online American history series for teens. And we recently launched our first Cyberchase app ever — and it hit the top of the kids chart the first week. Check it out at the iTunes store!

Q:What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?

A: Working with smart people who are passionate about what they do is incredibly rewarding. But there’s nothing like hearing from fans. An elementary school student wrote to tell us that because of Cyberchase, he no longer needs a math tutor. A little girl said she feels less alone when she watches because she could relate to Jackie, an African-American character. To hear that kind of story, and to know we’ve had a profound impact on a child’s life, is extremely gratifying. It’s a window into the world of what we do.

Learn more about our award-winning kids programming at kids.thirteen.org