It Starts With a Great Story: Interview With PBS Kids Producer Marcy Gunther

Marcy Gunther has a passion for creating media content for kids. As an Emmy-winning producer at PBS-member station WGBH, she has worked on shows like ZOOM, FETCH! with Ruff Ruffman, and produced edutainment apps in between TV projects. I asked her about the unique challenges of making educational media for kids and the ever-changing media landscape.

 

arthur_pbgs

(Arthur/pbskids.org)

Diverse Representation In Media

PBS has lead the way for diverse representation in their content. When I watch shows (set in modern times) for adults nowadays, they look almost odd to me if the cast isn’t diverse–especially given how little they reflect my son’s reality at his elementary school.

Definitely. I think that other networks have caught up a little bit, but I definitely think PBS was the first to make it a priority.

Is diversity still an important element when you’re developing content for PBS?

Absolutely. The goal is to always show the diversity in our country, whether it’s live-action casting of kids or animation.

And all kinds of diversity, whether it’s gender, ethnicity, learning styles… I’ll give Arthur as an example of a show where they’ve had characters with disabilities, autism, dyslexia… That’s a show I look at as one of the ones that has lead the way in terms of representing all kids. Sesame Street as well. People need to see themselves represented in media and studies show that it really can have a powerful impact on their lives.

This one is a timely issue–my son’s babysitter came out as a trans girl at age 15. What struck me was how easy it was for my son to accept that shift. Do you find that, generally, kids are more open minded?

You know, what’s interesting is looking at children’s television in other countries. In Europe, they represent transgender kids in their shows. Another example is an Arthur spinoff show called Postcards From Buster. It’s about Buster the Bunny, and has a mixture of live action and animation. One of the episodes was about a girl with two moms. There was such uproar over this episode that they ended up pulling the episode off the air (although some PBS stations ended up airing it anyway–good for them!). This was only 10 years ago.

What’s amazing is that, 10 years later, I don’t think it would be a big deal. For me, that’s what’s really exciting, working with people at PBS and WGBH who are willing to take those risks.

My boss is the executive producer and creator of Arthur. She put that out there. She took that risk. And we were not in an environment back then that was fully accepting (of gay marriage), but it’s amazing how long we’ve come. In 10 more years, we’ll see even more diversity represented, even more than where we are now.

Media plays an important role in showing people (diversity), because if they’ve seen it represented in media, that’s how people understand and that de-stigmatizes it.

The Ever-changing Media Landscape

You’ve been creating content at PBS since the late ’90s. What has changed since then?

Back then, we made TV shows. They were half an hour, and then we would make a flash-based web site and make some games. That was about the extent of it. Now we’re in a completely different media landscape (buzzword: transmedia) where you have no idea what a kid’s first interaction with your character and brand is going to be. It’s very likely not going to be watching a television broadcast. That’s probably the last thing they’re going to be doing. It might be an app, watching a video on YouTube… So, you just have to approach it very differently now. And the way you approach storytelling needs to be different.

I think the components of what makes a good story are still all the same. Good storytelling is actually more important than ever, because it is such a saturated market. And wowzers, the choices that we all have–kids especially. Growing up, you and I had maybe…

Like, two channels?

Yes, and you had to watch whatever was on, and we were all experiencing it in the same way. Now the sky’s the limit, and as a producer trying to create something that’s going to resonate with kids… I mean, some of the basic ingredients are the same: you need a great character and a compelling story. But there are so many new ways to tell that story.

Another aspect of PBS Kids shows is that they’re educational. How do you strike the balance between entertainment and education?

That’s hard. It’s hard because it’s so easy to do it poorly. And you can see a lot of examples of it done poorly (not on PBS, of course!), where it feels like the story is only there in service to the education, whereas education should be integral to the story. In fact, with FETCH!, one of the things that came across in research is that a lot of kids didn’t realize it was a science show. That was what was so great. They just thought it was entertaining and fun. It did not feel like an educational show, but it was a very educational show. It was funded by the National Science Foundation. The fact that kids were coming out of it feeling entertained and engaged instead of, “I just had a science lesson,” was a win-win for us. I think that shows like that can help change kids’ attitudes about science for the better.

(FETCH! With Ruff Ruffman/pbskids.org)

I’m currently working on a series of shorts where that’s one of the things we’re working with. It has this short format, so there’s less time for storytelling, and there is a lot of science we’re trying to get across. So, we’re looking at how we can strike that balance where kids can come away laughing and being entertained but also learning. It’s a delicate balancing act, and you always have to lead with story, and let the curriculum work to tell that story. That’s something that the writers I’m working with at WGBH do really well. It’s so easy not to do it well, and it’s so hard to do it well!

I mean, some of the basic ingredients are the same: you need a great character and a compelling story. But there are so many new ways to tell that story.

One of my favorite things about the work I do is that in this rapidly evolving media landscape, you really have to be flexible and creative. It keeps you on your toes and keeps you experimenting. You’re always working on different kinds of projects with different creative needs, and that keeps things fresh and fun.

Did having kids change your approach to creating content in any way, such as bringing awareness to areas you didn’t realize before?

That’s a good question. I always try to come at it (creating content) from “What do I find entertaining/funny/fun?” Because I think there are a lot of universals in that. It’s so interesting to have kids and watch my daughter–who is eight–she loves YouTube. She’s constantly watching YouTubers, and part of me gets mad, like, “You should be watching PBS!” Sometimes she still does. What’s interesting is that I’m trying to bring some of that into the new series I’m working on: the interactive relationship between YouTubers and viewers. I see her really engaging with that, and we’re trying to harness that with a new project. We’re calling upon real kids to help this YouTube star with problem he’s having in the story. So I’m definitely inspired by my daughter. I don’t let her make or post videos, but I’ll catch her talking as though she’s on camera. I’m inspired by that! The way kids are consuming media is so diverse. And since my kids are aging out of the PBS audience, I’m having to turn to other kids to educate me.

I always like to make sure I make shows I like watching with my kids. That’s always been important to me. A good story should be entertaining on a lot of different levels. That’s one of the things I love about Arthur. (Can you tell I’m a superfan?) Arthur is premiering its 20th season this year–that’s pretty amazing achievement in today’s media landscape!  I would watch that show a lot with my daughter. FETCH! too. FETCH! was such a funny show and we’d get letters from parents who were just as big a fan as their kids. That co-viewing where parents and children watch together, have a conversation about it after and try something that was on the show. That to me is perfection!

What’s the age range of YouTubers your daughter watches?

She watches many different ones. Some of them are kids, some of them are families. And Stampy, of course.

(Stampylonghead/youtube.com)

My son watches Stampy too. He must be an international superstar at this point.

Oh, he’s huge. That is fascinating to me, because who would have thought that watching someone play games would be something so compelling?

He’s actually very good at articulating what it is that makes a (Minecraft) level fun or intriguing. Not all of those YouTubers are good…

There’s lots of bad stuff out there. But that’s what so fascinating. It doesn’t have to be “good” to draw a lot of eyeballs.

But I think there’s a place for everyone. Even as adults, we love well-told stories. TV format is changing, but there are still stories like Game of Thrones that people gravitate to as much as ever before. There’s so much choice, and television has never been better. It’s raised the game, which makes for a more competitive environment. You have to do better because nobody’s watching those old sitcoms anymore, except for the really good ones!

What’s your take on kids having YouTube channels?

I’m not against it. I’m not a huge fan of the celebrity aspects of it. As a parent, I personally wouldn’t… Well, with the YouTube families, I feel like they’re using the kids as a vehicle to further their own stardom or whatever. That bugs me. For me, that’s overstepping a line.

Such as violating the kids’ privacy?

Yeah, taking advantage of their privacy. That rubs me the wrong way, I have to say. They act so perfect too (laughs). A family is not really like that! And the kids might look back in 10 years and say, “Why did you do this too me?”

I’m not opposed to it, but you have to be careful.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us!

Marcy_PortraitMarcy Gunther is an Emmy-award winning producer at PBS-member station WGBH.

Stay tuned for more information on new shows from PBS!

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