Television producers know they’ve got a tall order to fill when they pitch the sale of a show to the head of children’s programming at TVOKids.
“There is very little core curriculum content being produced,” says Pat Ellingson, Creative Head of Children’s Media for TVO. “Most producers who create educational content for our age groups focus only on the pro-social part of the curriculum. This is because it’s easier to produce and is easier to sell to the international market.”
As a result, TVO produces a good deal of its own content to fill the gap, providing an on-air and online curriculum that is inclusive of all strands of the Ontario school curriculums, Ellingson says.
TVOKids programming is divided into two categories: the morning block, called Gisèle’s Big Backyard, which is aimed at kids aged 2-5, and the afternoon block, called The Space, which is aimed at kids aged 6-11.
Each block is made up of shows purchased from production companies outside of TVO, shows produced in partnership with TVOKids, shows produced exclusively in-house, and short videos, called interstitials, which are also produced in-house.
In-house production on Gisèle’s Big Backyard (often called GBB by TVO staff) is overseen by Executive In Charge of Production Jennifer McAuley, who says the GBB mandate is to work within TVO’s Educational Blueprint, a document establishing the system through which content is created and tested.
“Our mandate at GBB is to… educate our viewers via entertainment,” says McAuley. “Information is tangible, relatable and fun through Gisèle and her friends’ daily activities within and around the Big Backyard.”
Entertainment value, meanwhile, is just as crucial as educational value, says, Ellingson. “Research is clear,” she says. “If a child is having fun they are engaged. Engaged learners are successful learners.”
In-house programming for the GBB block, which includes all programs featuring Gisèle and the TVOKids puppets, are based on the Ontario kindergarten curriculum and U.S. based HighScope Educational Research Foundation’s preschool curriculum, says McAuley.
“The Big Backyard community should feel familiar and friendly to our audience,” says McAuley. “They get to know the variety of characters that live in Gisèle’s community: Gisèle, Melvin, Jay, This, That, Tia or Lotta Numbers. The audience becomes familiar with their personalities, quirks, likes and dislikes, and by following them through their daily activities they learn with our characters.” For example, kids learn how icicles are formed through Tia’s discovery process, and they learn how to find the missing number between 7 and 9 with Lotta Numbers.
The afternoon block, The Space, is hosted by Kara Harun and Drew Dafoe. It’s aimed at school-age kids, but the target focus is a grade 2 student, says Marney Malabar, Executive in Charge of Production.
“We hope to give them a break after a long day at school,” says Malabar. “We hope we make them laugh… we hope we are role models for them, which is why we have silly moments of nonsense and moments of reality (highs and lows). We hope to be their friend, someone they can trust when it comes to issue days like TVOKids Hotline with Kids Help Phone or Homework Zone with special teachers helping answer homework problems. “
Weekday content comes from current affairs events like big snow storms and upcoming elections, and also from seasonal celebrations, and anti-bullying strategies. “Weekend content comes 100 percent from user generated content, the kids give us everything,” says Malabar.
Programs like Arthur and Dinosaur Train are acquisitions purchased by TVOKids from producers and production houses around the world. TVOKids’ Acquisitions Programmer Frances James is responsible for screening potential shows for purchase and selecting which she thinks meets the needs of the TVOKids mandate.
Meanwhile, in-house productions, including online content and games, are all put through a rigorous testing process led by TVOKids Educator/Research Advisor, Stacie Goldin, who is a former elementary school teacher.
“(My job is) knowing the curriculum really intimately, ensuring all our content we produce in house is curriculum linked and has a specific learning expectation at the heart of the project,” she says.
That includes vetting all scripts, attending all project meetings to ensure the integrity of the expectation, leading all focus testing sessions and proposing changes to in-house projects.
“I know what kids like, what they are capable of understanding from a developmental perspective as well as what they want,” she says. “I know how teachers teach, and what is effective for some students may not be effective for all, so we try to really mix up our method of getting the point across through our various platforms. I can speak a language that teachers want to hear, parents understand, and that kids relate to.”