2011 TC Pressroom
Teachers College, Columbia University
Teachers College Columbia University

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Me and You and a Dog Named Blue

Once upon a time there were two women who worked in the television industry. One was named Angela and one was named Alice.

Angela worked for Nickelodeon and Alice worked for Children's Television Workshop. Each of them wanted to create educational television programming for children that would be the best programming around. So they came to Teachers College to learn about how children develop and how they learn. As fate would have it, Angela and Alice took the same class at the same time-"TV and the Development of Youth"-with former Assistant Professor Rosemarie Truglio. Thus began a collaboration to research and to create one of the most popular educational children's television shows: Blue's Clues.

Blue's Clues stars a tri-colored blue hound named Blue. The show appears twice a day on the Nickelodeon network as one of the main features of their Nick Jr. programming for preschoolers.

Aside from the animated dog, the show features Blue's non-animated owner, Steve Burns, who is the host of the series. Steve talks directly to the audience of preschool-age viewers, inviting them to join him in activities and asking for their help when he needs to figure something out. The name "Blue's Clues" refers to pawprints left by Blue to help Steve understand what the dog is trying to say. When Steve sees something marked with a pawprint, he draws a picture of it in his "handy dandy notebook." After finding three clues, he sits in his big red and black "thinking chair" to discuss the clues with his audience. Together, they solve the puzzle.

On a deeper level, Blue's Clues is, according to TC alumna and head writer Angela Santomero (M.A. Developmental Psychology, 1995), a venue that "bridges the gap between research and production and brings them to a higher level." Santomero created the idea for Blue's Clues with producer/director Todd Kessler and designer Traci Paige Johnson in an effort to produce a game show where children solve problems while learning a curriculum. The curriculum is subtle reinforcement of skills such as color and shape recognition, sorting, vocabulary and problem solving. And, when Steve asks the audience for their help, there is also a bit of self-esteem building going on.

"The learning aspect is embedded in what children do," Santomero explained. "The older character needs their help with a problem." The problems are relatively easy in the beginning of the show, she explained, with each one becoming a little bit harder. "By the third clue, we are sitting in a big thinking chair and have brought preschoolers through a 30-minute show remembering clues."

Alice Wilder, (Ed.D. Educational Psychology, 1998), Director of Research and Development for the show, agreed that the interactive nature of the show's design is key to learning. "They watch it and participate in it and ‘own' the knowledge for themselves," she explained.

Wilder was at Teachers College working on her dissertation about the effectiveness of instructional programs for students with learning disabilities when Santomero called and asked her to watch the pilot she had created with Kessler and Johnson. "When Angela called me and showed me the pilot, I cried," Wilder said. "I saw so many of the things we had learned in school. I could see them becoming a reality in the show they had created."

Santomero had other reasons for showing the pilot to Wilder. "In order to do 20 episodes, I needed someone who was completely smart, who could understand the kids and the show, and bridge the gap between research and production," she explained. "So I told her, ‘We need someone just like you.'" Wilder's background in working with producers and writers at Children's Television Workshop enhanced her qualifications as a researcher for this project. Wilder was also getting what she called "great research experience" at Teachers College while working on her doctorate. She saw this as her opportunity to "take what I was learning about kids and apply it to the medium of television."

Not only was it rare to have a research department as part of a production, but Santomero came up with an idea to bring another unusual element to the show. "We want kids to master the concepts," she said. "One way of doing that is to air the same show every day for a week." According to what they were hearing from teachers, parents and grandparents, repetition is one of the most important strategies used in teaching children of this age group.

"It was something different, and it was scary to present it to Nickelodeon," Santomero confessed. "But they are big on research and they understood the power of hearing from our audience to create programming strategy. With Blue's Clues, we make decisions based on the research."

Santomero said that she and Wilder "created a curriculum together from Alice's expertise and from our mission, which is to empower, challenge and increase the self-esteem of preschoolers while making them laugh. How to do that comes from what Alice does."

Every script has a goal sheet attached to it that outlines the theme of that particular show and the overall goal. A team of three researchers conducts what they call a "concept test" on every script by sitting down with preschoolers in their day-care centers. While playing out the script with the children, the researchers keep track of how they respond. Then they analyze what happened and why. "We test every script three to four times before an episode gets on the air," Wilder said. According to Santomero, it can take up to ten months of research and production before a show is finally ready.

This time and effort has apparently reaped rewards both financially and critically. A recent article in TV Guide noted that, "Since Blue's Clues premiered in September 1996, it has snowballed into the most watched show on television among preschoolers..." The article went on to say that experts in the field "adore it." "Blue's Clues," says writer David Handelman, "is one of those rare instances when commercial television is both creative and educational without sacrificing entertainment value."

"We make the show as good as we can, and there are people out there trying to document if we are fulfilling the mission," explained Wilder. "We found that kids who watch Blue's Clues scored higher in kindergarten readiness skills than the kids who don't watch the show."

But the most touching story about how the show is affecting viewers came from a parent who contacted Santomero. "A mother called us to tell us that her son is autistic and won't talk to her and her husband," Santomero explained. "The first word he spoke was to Steve (the host of Blue's Clues)."

"We don't realize the impact and influence that TV has," she continued. That influence, she believes, goes beyond the show's production. With its popularity in the United States and abroad (there is currently a British version with German, Italian and Latin American editions being developed), the usual spin-off products-clothes, toys, books, and dolls-are filling shelves in stores around the country. "We meet with people who are creating toys and talk about how influential toys can be," Santomero explained. "We put the same influence into each toy that we put into production of the show."

"The same situation occurred with one of the licensers doing a line of Blue's Clues clothing," Wilder added. "We thought, what can we do to help children dress themselves?" After speaking to parents about their children's dressing habits and what would make children feel good about themselves, the results were the addition of bigger buttons, color-matched buttons and buttonholes, and elastic-waist pants. "We don't try to pretend we know everything, but we don't want to just see Blue on a T-shirt," Santomero said. "The clothing manufacturers are the experts in their business and we are the experts in our business. We are trying to keep that marriage as manageable as possible."

When a show starts out with such a noble basis and becomes enormously popular, it's not unusual for the initial goal to fall by the wayside. Santomero said she is excited by the success of Blue's Clues but, "I stay as focused as I can on why we are here and what we are doing. I just want to change the way TV is for preschoolers." She noted that self-esteem is formed at the preschool stage, and that preschoolers are the foundation for the next generation. If Blue's Clues can improve that foundation, then they are meeting their goals.

"It is a dream, like being in the classroom but reaching millions of kids at a time," Santomero said with a smile. "It's pretty cool."

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