Alice Cahn, VP of development for Cartoon Network’s kid businesses, is definitely in one of the most unique positions in the industry. Not only is she a buyer at Cartoon Network, she is one of the few people on the planet who is specifically interested in developing cutting-edge and creative preschool programming. With the global glut of preschool product in development or available for sale, this is great news for television animation producers. Better still is Cahn’s openness to hear pitches in all stages of development from insiders and newcomers alike.
Cahn came to Cartoon Network from The Markle Foundation in New York City where she served as managing director of Interactive Media for Children. Before that she worked at Sesame Workshop helping to create such properties as Sagwa and Tiny Planets. Prior to that, she served as director of children’s programming for PBS and developed, purchased or acquired properties such as The Teletubbies, Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? Arthur and Noddy. Cahn holds a master’s degree in educational technology from San Francisco State University and a bachelor’s degree in education from New York University. Her professional affiliations include Board membership on Exclaim Entertainment, PBS’ Ready to Learn Service and the Ealing Studio’s Advisory Board on Children’s Programming.
Rita Street: Alice, we’re thrilled that Cartoon Network is moving into the preschool arena, but we’re also curious about the format. Will your programs launch as a block?
Alice Cahn: At this point, that’s a question we’re still asking ourselves. I can tell you that the programming will air during the time of day when children under the age of six are at home without siblings, and that’s between the hours of nine in the morning and two in the afternoon.
RS: I notice in your bio that you started out as a teacher. How has that job informed your work in program development for little ones?
AC: That was the best job I ever had. It was the most personally satisfying and the hardest work I ever did. One anecdote: I taught in the late ’70s in New York City. Years later, when we were launching The Magic School Bus and we were all sitting around at a large conference table at the Scholastic offices, I noticed this man who seemed familiar. When the meeting ended, he came over to me and said, “Mrs. Cahn. Do you remember me? I was in your seventh grade social studies class.” What a wonderful thing, to see one of my students be such a success! It was definitely a cool job.
RS: How has the television preschool business changed since you started working for the Public Broadcasting Service?
AC: The reason I was so interested in this project is that there are so many good viewing choices for preschoolers out there today. Looking over the landscape during the last 15 years there was only one good place for young children and that was Public Broadcasting. Then, in the ’90s, new, strong and wonderful players emerged like Nick Jr., Playhouse Disney, at one point Fox Family and now Discovery. There isn’t a preschool outlet that isn’t at once good for kids and highly entertaining. So, I’m pleased to be entering this universe, but with something that is completely unique and that is the notion of humor.
What’s important to remember about this age group is that kids live in highly scheduled and regulated worlds and that everything they see becomes a part of their consciousness in some way. So whether you focus on cognitive learning or social skills or on strengthening their sense of humor to build confidence and face challenges (which is what we plan to do with our programming), your content has to meet preschoolers’ needs–speak their language. We plan on being the funniest place on the screen, but funny with a purpose.
RS: So what are you looking for from producers or artists pitching original programming?
AC: I’m really impressed with producers and creators who demonstrate through their content that they understand the target audience–what’s age-group appropriate and what’s not– and that they can speak to kids through wonderfully crafted characters and narrative. Whether you’re a writer or animator or anyone else working in our field, you have to show me that you know what children need; what might be missing from their lives.
A great pitch can come in many forms. I’ve had really great pitches that are two paragraphs on one piece of paper, or sixty pages long or just drawings or sculptures. I don’t know that there are necessarily a contained set of elements that I’m looking for, just someone who has an idea based on their understanding of preschoolers and that I happen to click with the idea. At this point, I’m not particular about how developed ideas are when they’re presented. I’m always excited and flattered when I’m asked to be part of the development process by producers I respect. There’s no better fun in our business–setting aside the economic concerns–than going forward hand in hand. We’re lucky enough to be building a preschool environment from the ground up. So it’s a blank canvas, and I’m eager to work with people who want to reinvent the form.
RS: How important is it to bring in an idea that has the potential to reach from the television screen to the computer screen to the GameBoy screen?
AC: Kids aren’t hampered with new media play the way many adults are; they are hampered more by the lack of physical ability to deal with technology. There’s anecdotal evidence that children as young as four find characters in online gaming and then move to them on television. This is purely observational, but I have noted that tech-savvy parents born after the introduction of the PC have fewer hang-ups about kids spending time with screens. Pre-schoolers three to four, and certainly five-year-olds, are adept with the mouse and can easily go to sites their parents bookmark for them as safe. So it would be foolish for anyone in television today to not consider all the screens across which kids are interacting with characters. Putting together financing of properties by looking at ancillary revenues is very important, and I am excited about that. I’m excited about the opportunities, and I’m driven by my commitment to kids.
RS: How can our readers reach you if they’d like to pitch an idea that meets with the standards you’ve discussed?
AC: We’re open to talking about a range of deals and to looking at a range of properties that are best for kids. We’ve been fielding e-mails from creatives since I started, and I’m meeting people right now in my New York offices. I’m happy to have people send info directly to our offices [1 Time Warner Center, New York, NY 10019] or e-mail me for more info at [email protected] I’m not worried about putting my address out there because that’s how you find out about great work. Some of the biggest hits out there got their start because someone listened.