By Abbie Bernstein

Lesli Rotenberg, General Manager, Children's Programming,   PBS Courtesy of PBS

Lesli Rotenberg, General Manager, Children’s Programming, PBS
Courtesy of PBS

Most contemporary parents and youngsters would agree that PBS is the gold standard for educational children’s television programming. This is because the Public Broadcasting System has remained nonprofit, so that any merchandising concerns are secondary to the network’s agenda of combining useful learning opportunities with entertainment.

Lesli Rotenberg is the General Manager of Children’s Programming at PBS. During PBS’ three days of presentations at the Television Critics Association press tour, Rotenberg sits down at a table in the foyer to talk about PBS Kids, what it does and why it works so well.

For starters, what exactly does the General Manager of Children’s Programming at PBS do? “I oversee a team at PBS of professionals who work on all phases of our children’s media. That includes television programming, Web games, apps, marketing, publicity, social media, distribution. So pretty much everything that we do to create content and get content to children and parents.”

As for the age of the target audience, Rotenberg adds, “We create our content to reach children ages two to eight.”

Rotenberg says she personally didn’t grow up on PBS children’s programming. “I was a little bit too old, unfortunately,” she acknowledges with a laugh (she doesn’t look it). “My children did, though. I have two girls, eighteen and fifteen, and they completely grew up on PBS children’s programming.”

PBS became Rotenberg’s employer thirteen years ago. “I started as the person who oversees all the marketing and communications for PBS. I was hired from the Discovery Channel, where I had worked for ten years. I came into that role and I still have that role, and then in 2005, I took over at the Children’s Media division.”

SESAME STREET celebrates its forty-fifth anniversary this year. Rotenberg believes the venerable series has laid a template for newer PBS children’s programming. “I would say SESAME STREET and MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD, the two of them, are really the legacy from which PBS Kids was built. Those are the models for us in terms of, both of those programs were created based on an educational need in this country. So the need came first before the show, and then the show was developed to fill the need, to teach children those essential skills, whether they were academic or cognitive or whether they were social/emotional – just kind of the whole philosophy. And then the way they go about it, with equal parts entertainment, so that the kids are engaged, and education, so that we are fulfilling our mission and we’re helping children to prepare for their success, whether it’s at school or in life, just big picture.”

THE CAT IN THE HAT KNOWS A LOT ABOUT THAT! will celebrate Dr. Seuss’ birthday with a one-hour special airing March 3

THE CAT IN THE HAT KNOWS A LOT ABOUT THAT! will celebrate Dr. Seuss’
birthday with a one-hour special airing March 3
Credit: The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That! © 2014, CITH Productions, Inc.
and Red Hat Animation Ltd. Underlying characters © 1957, 1985 Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P.

In Rotenberg’s opinion, what are the necessary components of a PBS Kids show? “I’m going to repeat myself just a little bit to say, it starts with the intention. It makes us really unique, this idea that we start with a need. So we start with a curriculum framework that we’ve developed to map out what are all the skills that children need to be successful in school and in life, and those are going to include academics, areas like literacy and math and science, as well as social/emotional issues, social/emotional skills, and then these other skills that are sometimes referred to as ‘twenty-first century skills,’ but they’re skills that business leaders have assessed are really essential in the workplace today – things like collaboration, cooperation, creativity, critical thinking. So all of these are part of the blend that we put together. We will map out what the needs are, and then we’ll use that to commission new content. So in other words, if we need math content, which we actually did, so this is a real example, we would then commission, go out and ask for producers to develop programs, media properties, that teach those specific math skills. We’re very specific about what it is that we want to teach. No other media company goes about it that way, because they don’t have the same intention, or the same end goal. We’re only successful if we’re actually teaching children skills that are going to help them be successful. So it starts there. That’s not the only thing, but I think that’s really important. And then I’d say one of the things that distinguishes us is, of course we have great characters, we have great storylines, and you have to have great characters and stories or you’re not going to really engage kids. I don’t know that that’s completely unique, although we pay a lot of attention to that and it’s really important to us. But then another aspect, I would say, is our characters are dealing with problems and issues that are real-world problems for kids. So there are things that kids are really going to encounter. And unlike other media companies who will go nameless, they don’t solve problems using magic. It’s really important to us that we’re modeling skills and behavior that will help them be successful in the real world. So that real-world mentality, even if we use some fantasy and we have fun, it’s always applicable and translatable to the real world.”

Different PBS Kids shows are designed to address different areas of learning. For instance, the upcoming new series THE ODD SQUAD deals with math by putting the problems in the context of matters that must be solved by the title group.

“We saw a need to fill in terms of kids and math readiness,” Rotenberg explains. “There’s a lot of great, specific research that shows that kids in America today are not successfully acquiring math skills, and we’re really falling behind in that way. Math is an important predictor of other learning. So just like literacy – if you can’t read, you can’t learn everything else – math also is a really important predictor of success in every other academic area. So we really wanted to beef up our content in that, so we went out and looked for proposals from a really diverse range of producers. We wanted to attract new producers we’d never worked with before – that was one of our objectives – and developed one property, PEG + CAT, which just premiered this fall, for math in preschool, and then a second property, ODD SQUAD, which is coming in the next fiscal year, 2015-16, is also math, but it’s targeting children five to eight.”

These programs can also benefit adults, Rotenberg notes. “We did not create the show for adults, but one of our goals is to provide tools and materials to parents. Many of them have not done math for a long time, maybe didn’t think that they were terribly good at math in school, and it’s an area that they’re maybe not as comfortable with as some other areas. So [it was a goal] to develop a property and support materials where parents can help their kids and feel comfortable helping their kids, even if they themselves don’t feel like they’re terribly great at math, or maybe are uncomfortable with math. So that’s one of the things that you’ll find with both PEG + CAT and THE ODD SQUAD is there’s a lot of material support for parents to help them to help their kids.”

Producers for PBS Kids programs come from a variety of backgrounds, Rotenberg says. “They’re really a hybrid. I wouldn’t say they’re a hundred percent education or a hundred percent entertainment. They tend to be people who are really talented and have an interest in both, so they certainly have entertainment and creative skills and abilities and track records, but they’re interested in children’s education. If they don’t have an interest in children’s education, they’re probably not going to be attracted to PBS and they’re probably not going to be a good fit.”

There’s a famous saying that it takes a village to raise a child. It doesn’t take a whole village to handle PBS children’s programming, but Rotenberg says she certainly doesn’t do it alone. “It’s pretty small, but there’s a great team in place. One of the other unique aspects of the way PBS develops is we develop content across platforms. So we don’t develop TV series and then decide what the website’s going to be or if we’re going to have apps. At the same time, simultaneously, we have a very small unit, a group of people at PBS who are looking at the property for television while another group is looking at the property for the Web and for mobile and apps, and together, they will greenlight a property. So they’re all working on it at the same time, and if we think it will be successful on one platform but not on another, we won’t do it, because kids are so multi-platform at this point, they’re so digitally adept, that it has to be a property that will work everywhere for them and that can be both a linear narrative television experience and an interactive game. And if it doesn’t have the capability to do that, we’re not interested.”

The content is somewhat different for television and for the Web, Rotenberg relates. “Of course, we will have streaming video on the Web, but we will have unique, original, immersive games on the Web. For example, in THE ODD SQUAD, you are in the Odd Squad. You are solving cases. You are like one of the characters of the show. So it’s very immersive. The great thing about the Web games is you get to practice those skills that you’re learning from the TV series, so you get to put them into practice and get real feedback on whether you’re getting it or not or whether you’re succeeding.”

At present, PBS Kids Web users can only interact with the game and not with other children, Rotenberg notes. “It’s not a social thing right now where the kids are interacting with each other, although we are in the process of building something like that overall for PBS Kids.” The Web developers are committed to making sure the site is safe for children to visit, without fear of coming across adult predators posing as juveniles, Rotenberg adds. “That’s really important to us, which is why we are taking a lot of time to make sure that we’re developing it in a way that is completely safe for kids.”

One of the things SESAME STREET is known for is its astonishing guest casting, which encompasses everyone from Michelle Obama to Sir Ian McKellen to the band One Direction, all presented in sketches designed for maximum hilarity. Rotenberg says that she personally isn’t involved in the casting, “But they do an amazing job. They always seem to find the celebrity, whether they are music or movies or television, who are really popular at the moment and do a great job of developing these parodies that are funny to kids on one level and funny to adults on a different level.”

This is primarily so that parents will feel they can get something out of watching SESAME STREET with their children, Rotenberg explains. “Kids don’t know who these celebrities are, so it has to work for the kids on a pure entertainment and educational level, without having any idea who these people are, and then if the parents are engaged, the parents are more likely to watch as well, and there’s a lot of great research on the fact that if parents watch with their kids, the kids actually get more out of the show. Just the fact that [the parents are] involved, they can have a conversation about it, that they know what their kids are learning and they can transfer those same lessons to the rest of their life means that the kids will actually learn more from the show.”

During the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, SESAME STREET’s Big Bird took on candidate Mitt Romney, who said he would defund public television if elected. Who decides if a character like Big Bird is going to do something outside of the STREET, like address a political issue?

“It’s really a combination of the producers of the particular show and [the PBS Kids team],” Rotenberg says. “So in the case that you refer to, it was really the SESAME STREET producers – it’s their property, their character, and they’re the ones who are going to make that decision, and then we’ll collaborate with them if we decide to engage on some level as to what that might look like. But they’re the ones who would decide. So really, it would depend on the property, and in every case, for every property, there is a producer who has developed that property and who would be kind of the first decision-maker as to the role and what’s appropriate. And then we would also collaborate with them and coordinate.”

Who actually can get the green light to make a new show for PBS Kids? “There’s a team at PBS that I need that has the green light power,” Rotenberg relates. “So it’s not a single [person’s] decision – it’s very much a group decision by the stakeholders on my team as to what we decide, what content we decide to green light.”

How many shows does PBS Kids have going on at one time? Rotenberg reveals, “We have quite a few shows going at once, in production for new seasons at the same time as we’re launching new ones. Off the top of my head, somewhere between ten and twenty.”

Adding to the complexity of making sure everything is running smoothly on so many projects, there is no central production location. Per Rotenberg, it’s “all over the map. Not just in those cities [New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.], but other countries as well, for programs that are co-productions in some cases and may have a production partner in another country, or where the animation might be taking place in other places. So really, all over the place.”

With so many far-flung projects, one might think that duplicating content might be a concern, but Rotenberg says it’s not an issue. “I don’t think we’ve ever had that. They’re different enough – the characters are different enough, the scenarios are different enough – several shows might deal with, for example, the idea of the parents have a new baby and how do the other children in the family adapt to that. But they’re going to deal with it completely differently, depending on what the show is. And so we don’t see that as a problem.”

Daniel Tigers Neighborhood, PBS, PBS Kids

DANIEL TIGER’S NEIGHBORHOOD will feature “Daniel’s Big Feelings Week”
airing February 17 to 21
Credit: Courtesy of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood © 2014 The Fred Rogers Company

Does the status of PBS Kids as not-for-profit make it more trusted by the audience than its more commercial peers in the children’s entertainment business? Rotenberg responds in the affirmative. “Absolutely. And it’s not just that I feel that way, but we really know that from research, because we do a lot of research with parents, and they will say, year after year, that they trust PBS more than any other media organization, because they know that we have their children’s best interests at heart, and that that’s what motivates us, and so they know that we’re in it for a different goal than any of the other players in the media business. I think they’re pretty savvy.”

This said, PBS does some merchandising with things like, for instance, Elmo toys. Does this merchandising help fund production? “It does,” Rotenberg says. “It is not a huge part, it’s not a huge contributor for most of our properties to the bottom line, but it’s definitely part of the financial equation.”

Would Rotenberg say that PBS children’s programming reflects her tastes and priorities? “It definitely reflects my priorities. But again, I would feel uncomfortable giving anyone the impression that this is a singular person’s vision, because I’m very much a leader of a team that, in a very democratic way, comes together to determine what our priorities are, both in terms of curriculum and in terms of content, and I would give the credit in terms of taste to Linda Simensky, [PBS’ Vice-President of Children’s Programming]. I would defer to her on the taste issues, because that’s really her expertise.”

Does Rotenberg have favorite scene or storyline that’s turned up somewhere on PBS Kids lately?

“It’s really hard to pick a favorite,” Rotenberg observes, “but if you say ‘lately,’ I could come up with one that I love. There are actually two kind of vying in my head for my lately favorites, which are both from PEG + CAT, because that’s our newest show, so I’m seeing them in a fresh way. There’s one episode featuring Beethoven, which is just so original in the way that it deals with teaching children about patterns, using [sings the opening bar of Beethoven’s Fifth] ‘Da da da dah.’ So the idea that they use a cultural reference and teach children a math concept like patterns – it’s so clever and so creative and it’s really funny. That’s one of my favorite story-lines I’ve seen lately.”

In addition to running PBS Kids, Rotenberg relates, “I work on all of the marketing and communications for all of PBS, not just children’s programming, but also the general audience programming, so it keeps me pretty busy. So I’m involved in promoting DOWNTON ABBEY and all those other fun things.”

Among those “fun things” is SHERLOCK, which Rotenberg says has introduced her to a particular aspect of pop culture. “Oh, SHERLOCK has definitely been a lesson in fandom,” she laughs. “I really don’t think I’ve seen as rabid fans as we’ve seen for Benedict Cumberbatch.”

In conclusion, Rotenberg says she loves her job at PBS Kids. Nothing else she’s done has been “anywhere near as satisfying or fulfilling.”

Interview by Abbie Bernstein

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Abbie Bernstein

Abbie Bernstein

Abbie Bernstein is an entertainment journalist, fiction author and filmmaker. Besides Buzzy Multimedia, her work currently appears in Assignment X.
Abbie Bernstein