By her own admission, Angela Santomero couldn’t sit close enough to the TV when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was on. Little did she realize at the time that her affection for Fred Rogers’ seminal kids TV show would lead to a career in the television industry. While researching an eighth grade research paper on Mister Rogers, Santomero learned of his child development degree before he became a television icon. She followed in his educational footsteps, receiving a B.A. in Psychology & Communications from the Catholic University of America and then a Master’s in Child Developmental Psychology, with a concentration Instructional Technology & Media, at Teacher’s College at Columbia University.
While working in the research department at Nickelodeon, Santomero was a co-creator (with Todd Kessler and Traci Page Johnson) of Blue’s Clues. Before Blue’s Clues, Nickelodeon’s focus groups didn’t talk to kids under 6, but the smash hit success of the show launched their long-running dominance of the pre-school television market. It also led to a memorable meeting with Mister Rogers himself at a children’s television event at the University of Pennsylvania, which in turn led to an ongoing correspondence until Mister Rogers’ passing in 2003. She followed up her success on Blue’s Clues with two PBS Kids shows: Super WHY! and the Mister Rogers spinoff series Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Her work in television has earned her a Peabody Award for Outstanding Children’s Programming, several Daytime Emmy nominations, and numerous other awards.
She is a Founding Partner and Chief Creative Officer of Out of the Blue Enterprises LLC, which produces Super WHY!, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, and the new Amazon Prime kids series Creative Galaxy and Wishenpoof. Just before the premiere of new Creative Galaxy episodes, we were able to talk with Angela Santomero via telephone about the show.
TOONZONE NEWS: Before we start, I have to share a Creative Galaxy story about my son. We discovered the show about a month ago on Amazon Prime, and after we watched two episodes, he tells me, “Daddy, let’s turn off the TV and make something.”
ANGELA SANTOMERO: Awesome! What did you make?
TOONZONE NEWS: We took an old shipping box and turned it into a truck.
ANGELA SANTOMERO: Oh my God, I love it. Woo-hoo! There you go, that’s it in a nutshell. (Laughs)
TOONZONE NEWS: I have to tell you, on some level I wonder about the wisdom of making a show that’s encouraging kids to turn off the television.
ANGELA SANTOMERO: They always come back for more. But that’s the whole point, right? We’re all about the kids and childhood, in addition to the shows. It’s what life is all about, and child development. So yeah, that is exactly what we want to do (laughs).
TOONZONE NEWS: Seriously, that was the moment when I was completely sold on the show, because it takes a lot to make a show that kids want to keep watching, but it takes even more to make one where kids want to turn it off and do something because of it.
Did you have the idea to do a show about art before Amazon approached you for series ideas, or was that something Amazon came to you with?
ANGELA SANTOMERO: No, me and my partners had wanted to do an art show for a long time, in terms of our careers and what we’d been doing for kids and kindergarten readiness skills and reading. The arts and creativity is such a huge thread through all of the academics and it’s not as serviced in education, obviously moreso now than ever before. So it was something that we had wanted to do for a really long time, and it was something that ended up becoming so timely in the sense of arts and crafts and everyone really coming into that with Pinterest and such and TV showing a lot of DIY. I think that it really struck a chord when we were able to go to Amazon and say, “This is something we’ve wanted to do for a really long time,” and they were all excited about it.
TOONZONE NEWS: How does scheduling work for Creative Galaxy? You came out of the gate with 6 episodes and now you’re coming out with more. Is the pipeline different for Creative Galaxy than it is for other shows that you’ve worked on for broadcast?
ANGELA SANTOMERO: It’s actually not that different in the sense of keeping to our schedule. We usually have a bunch of shows in the can before we premiere them, so the biggest difference really has been the pace. We’re definitely trying to get things done as quickly as possible so that we can continue to get them out to our audience, which is a great problem to have in terms of people wanting more. It’s a similar process in terms of the writing. We have a huge research component for the show to make sure that the kids are really inspired go and make things after the show is over and they’re learning our art messages. We held on to these episodes for a little bit. Amazon then made the decision to put them out in batches.
TOONZONE NEWS: Were these new episodes in the pipeline before you even premiered, or was this an order that came after the initial six?
ANGELA SANTOMERO: No, they were all in the pipeline while as we premiered the first six. Just finishing all of them now.
TOONZONE NEWS: I know that you have a bit more freedom on Amazon with things like episode length, since you’re not chained to what television does. How else would you say things are different working with Amazon Studios vs. PBS or Nickelodeon or the other networks?
ANGELA SANTOMERO: I think that the time constraints are definitely an interesting one. We were able to play with mixed media even moreso today than we’ve done before, in the sense of having really nice, long-length interstitials or live-action kid components to every episode. So for each 11-minute story, we have a corresponding interstitial so that kids at home can see real kids making whatever the key art piece is on the show, in addition to seeing animated Arty and Epiphany make everything. That was really exciting to us to be able to do that kind of live-action shoot and have that coincide with all of the animation. That was great, and again, the timing was really dependent on what we thought we could tell a great story with, so that freedom was really lovely.
I love being on the forefront of something big and something new, and this idea of kids watching what they want to watch, when they want to watch it, and where they want to watch it. It’s something that we’re all about, especially from a preschool perspective. It’s definitely easier for Mom to take her Kindle with her or whatever on the road and be able to watch really good quality stuff. With all the people we’ve worked with, it’s been about that bonding and that sense of having a camaraderie with the head of the network. For Amazon, Tara Sorensen is a visionary and a really strong person who’s really been a huge component of the arts and what we’ve been doing with Creative Galaxy, so that’s been a great experience for me.
TOONZONE NEWS: Can you talk about the things we can expect to see in these new episodes?
ANGELA SANTOMERO: Yeah, sure sure! We’re so about the audience, and so excited on the message boards from Amazon and on Twitter and whatever else to get to hear from parents. One of the things that was heard a lot is that they love the birthday party stuff. So we’ve done how art can help you celebrate. We’ve done a party and a birthday party, with art and decorations and goodie bags, and even a treasure hunt game. All that kind of stuff. So it’s a really fun, fun “art as a birthday party”-type episode. We also do art in the bath which, not to ruin it for everybody, but the idea of soap crayons is something that was really fun and really exciting: this idea that you can be creative and create even in the bath, so that was just an inspiration for us to keep going with that. With games, we talk about Dada art, actually, and using art to actually make your own board game, which is really really fun…
TOONZONE NEWS: Wait wait wait, did you just say you’re going to do an episode about Dada?
ANGELA SANTOMERO: Dada art. Uh-huh. We show how you can play while you’re making art, and then the whole episode is about games and playing.
TOONZONE NEWS: That is outstanding. (Laughter)
ANGELA SANTOMERO: It is so much fun. And then in these six episodes, we showcase Picasso and we showcase Kandinsky, so that’s definitely a smattering. We just got really excited to show the famous artists as much as possible, to give a lot of the art vocabulary, and to give really tangible, fun things that kids can make that they’re excited about. There’s also a golf game that we make, so that’s something that they can make and then play, and they can see how we do it. It’s a really really good bunch of episodes, I have to say.
TOONZONE NEWS: We’re Toonzone and we love animation, but I’m curious if there’s a specific reason why you’re drawn to the medium. Blue’s Clues was very heavily animated, and everything you’ve done since then is all animation. Was that something that you went over in during your child development/psychology education? Or is there something about cartoons that you particularly like?
ANGELA SANTOMERO: I have two answers to that. The first one is I’ve always been drawn to classic storybooks for this age group and how richly, vividly they’re illustrated, and all the messages and all the stories you can see within a visual. So, animation stemming from that inspiration is something that I’ve always held on to. And also, as a medium for preschoolers, it’s so visual. I can show what somebody is thinking. I can truly show all the different emotions — and exaggerate them if I need to — on the faces of our characters if I’m doing a show about that.
For this kind of show, on arts and crafts, we use a lot of textures and we can show how you put something together in terms of different processes. You’ll see the difference between the live-action and the animation. There’s pros and cons to both, obviously, but in animation, you can really show it as clearly as possible, when in live-action there’s just a little bit more fluctuation. So it’s really telling the story as visually as possible and getting that sense and that bonding from these characters to our home viewer.
Another pro for animation is these fantastical characters being less threatening to a pre-schooler, and that sense of seeing or mirroring a character doing something that you then might try to do, as opposed to seeing a kid who might seem like they could do it better than you. It was really interesting to us to be able to do an art show so you could see both: you can see a real kid just like you and you can also see a character within the animation that you can then befriend or relate to or help out.
The second answer to the question has always been that the day Steve told me that he was going to leave Blue’s Clues was probably one of the worst days in the history of my career (laughter). A sense of, “No no no, we’re not done telling all the stories that we want to tell. You cannot be done.” So I always joke that every show since then has been all animated so that nobody can ever want to leave. And like the pre-schoolers, we obviously turned it around and had Steve go to college, so I am so happy when somebody, especially now, comes up to me and says, “Oh the reason why I went to college is that I wanted to go to college like Steve.” That makes me so happy. But yeah, from an animation perspective, they’re not done until we say they’re done (laughs).
TOONZONE NEWS: I had one broader thing I wanted to ask you about, which is “The Pause.” I remember Mr. Rogers would do it and Sesame Street would do it occasionally, but it was Blue’s Clues that really institutionalized that in pre-school TV. I find that some shows do it really well, but there are other shows that almost feel like they’re using it as a crutch to pad time or where it just seems that the question they’re asking isn’t really worth the pause for the answer. I was wondering if you had guidelines or specific ideas on how to use it and when and why.
ANGELA SANTOMERO: I love this question. I think that the answer is really about thinking. From the very beginning, it was all about getting kids to participate with the medium and with our stories, and getting them involved. I’ve always said that it was like a science experiment in school. The things that you remember the most are things that you were able to do hands-on, and learn and fail and try, try again. So how do you do that with the medium of television? How do you get kids involved and invested? You saw it in video games way back when, and you see it in the apps now that kids want to be part of the experience. At the time, for Blue’s Clues, the technology wasn’t there — and it’s still not — to really have voice-activated TV. From a pre-school perspective, it was pausing to give them this time to think about what the question was, know that they have a voice in order to answer, and let them try to answer. But we do it for them to be thinking and to be practicing their skills, so we’re not just modeling kindergarten readiness skills or reading skills or modeling whether it’s colors or art vocabulary or process. We’re actually giving them time to do it with us, and that makes all the difference.
To geek out for a minute, we’re all about utilizing media in order to get some gains on the other side of education. If the kids had to take a test, we’d want to see that they’re scoring better because they watch our shows. That sense that what we’re doing is enriching their lives. So yes, I’ve seen the way that the pausing is used since Blue’s Clues, and most of the time it’s very, very different than the calculated way that we use it to bring the audience in.
TOONZONE NEWS: You can tell when it’s working because my son will talk to Blue’s Clues or to Creative Galaxy. There are other shows where he’ll just sit there and not answer the television set.
ANGELA SANTOMERO: And it reminds me that an adult, too, will ask a lot of questions but not necessarily pause enough for a child to answer them, you know? It’s literally being able to leave enough time, or asking the right question, or the question at the right time for the right reason. We do have a whole bible on how to do that.
TOONZONE NEWS: Is there something specific that you’ve learned about art or anything else in making this show?
ANGELA SANTOMERO: For me, it’s been a connection between all of it: the art and the cognitive processes. Really trying to understand how to relay to parents why this is so important. You live it and you breathe it and you know it, but when you start to talk about it and see those connections…that’s something that I find really fascinating. We go into research with the kids all the time, and when they see pointillism, for instance, knowing that they can do that and noticing that awe that they have when they see that you can actually create an entire image using pointillism, it’s just that “ah-hah!” moment. For me, it’s really underscoring that sense of awe and that sense of what that means when something clicks in a kid, and then watching them take off. That’s what I love about this show and what is new or interesting that I’ve learned going through this process.
TOONZONE NEWS: What else do you have going on right now? I know that Wishenpoof got greenlit by Amazon, and you’re still in production with Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood in addition to Creative Galaxy.
ANGELA SANTOMERO: Yes, and we have new Super WHY! episodes for PBS coming out next year, too. With Wishenpoof, we’re really in the thick of it. It’s a really exciting fun show as well. We’re doing that one in CGI animation, and it’s just gorgeous and beautiful. I’m having a very fun time with that. It’s very different in terms of what we’re teaching kids about. It’s more about life skills in terms of overall girl empowerment, and kid empowerment messaging.
Toonzone News would like to thank Angela Santomero for taking the time to speak with us, as well as George Cabico at Amazon Studios PR for making the arrangements. New episodes of Creative Galaxy are available now via Amazon Prime, and a free preview is available. You can keep up with Angela Santomero through her website, AngelasClues.com, or via Facebook and Twitter.The thread view count is