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Angela's Smashes

You may not recognize Angela Santomero, but you sure know the famous blue dog she created. Meet the imaginative powerhouse behind the über hit Blue’s Clues and the new sensation Super Why!

photographs by william taufic
hair and makeup by erica paronich for noble salon

My young daughter watches a mega-popular children’s TV program called Blue’s Clues. The show appeals to me because it is warm, gentle, moderately paced, and, with its live-action host and animated backgrounds, visually fun to look at. I can sit there happily with Emilie, taking part in the action or reading a book as I please, and not have to flee from cloying cuteness or brain-sucking boredom. The show appeals to Emilie because... well, until recently, I couldn’t tell you why. All I knew was, she chatted, cackled and belly-laughed her way through what seemed to me an eminently tame quarterhour.

The idea is pretty basic: The host (Steve or Joe) and his animated puppy (Blue) discover three clues — each denoted by the appearance of a blue pawprint — that help solve a puzzle. Cute stuff. But wasn’t Emilie’s passion disproportionately strong? The scientific answer is no, not at all: What I’d supposed was a random preference had been scrupulously engineered to stimulate her preschool mind. Those who study children’s TV consider Blue’s Clues (produced from 1996 to 2006 but still ubiquitous on Nickelodeon’s Nick Jr.) not merely a commercial phenomenon, but an educational groundbreaker, the first major advancement in the field since Sesame Street a quarter century before.

One day a fellow nursery school dad told me that one of the creators and writers of Blue’s Clues, Angela Santomero, lives in Greenwich. (The town appears to be a magnet for kids’ TV geniuses: Muppets creator Jim Henson, so essential to Sesame Street’s success, lived here from 1964 to 1971, and Barney and Friends creator Sheryl Leach lives here now.) The Santomero family — Angela and Greg and their daughters Hope and Ella — moved from Manhattan in 2006, a pivotal time in Angela’s career: Blue’s Clues had just ended production; she had started her own company, Out of the Blue Enterprises, with former Nickelodeon executive Samantha Freeman Alpert, and the two dynamos were readying Angela’s new creation, Super Why!, for its September 2007 debut on PBS Kids.

By the spring of 2009, Super Why! appeared to be on the brink of catching fire — an improbable second lightning strike for Angela.

Who is this remarkable woman? What sorcery does she work on millions of little kids? In order to find out, I went off to Out of the Blue in midtown Manhattan. The day was cloudy, but up on the company’s fourteenth floor offices, where the walls are painted sky-blue, light poured in anyway, as if the place radiated some sort of invincible kid energy. An assistant apologized: Executives from Hasbro, the toy company, were sequestered in the conference room and the meeting was running long. Presently Angela emerged, an attractive blonde with a light gold tan and a blazing smile.

Early Clues
As we talked in her modest office — slightly cluttered, no real view — Angela struck me as one of those unusual people who carry in their adult selves a core of childlike innocence. She seemed to slide easily between her formidable grown-up intellect and the creative dreaminess of that inner child. “I was the little preschooler who couldn’t sit close enough to Mr. Rogers,” she says, speaking of the so-uncool-he’s-cool host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. “I just wanted to go into that world.”

Growing up in the northern New Jersey town of Harrington Park, Angela imagined she would pursue teaching, like her father, or perhaps child psychology. “She was always a bright little girl,” says her mother, Mary Jane Capobianco, who still has a clear memory of her daughter watching Mr. Rogers with her graham crackers and milk. “I knew she liked to write, but whoever thought?”

In eighth grade, while researching a paper on Fred Rogers (she never outgrew him), Angela discovered that he’d earned a child development degree before getting famous on television. What a brilliant stroke, she thought, to marry TV and children’s education in such a careful, serious way. (Rogers claimed he went into TV because he “hated it so.”) But because she never imagined working on-camera, a future in TV, despite her interest in it as a teaching tool, seemed unlikely — until she found out that Sesame Street and other shows had research departments.

As a young researcher at Nickelodeon in the early nineties — one with a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Teachers College — Angela fixed her attention on preschoolers, then thought to be an iffy market. Her interest in them can be traced in part to a certain test subject: her brother, Robert, fourteen years younger, whom Angela had taught and observed with an aspiring educator’s eye. As a TV pro she noticed that preschoolers were underserved. “At the time, Nick’s focus groups didn’t talk to kids under six,” she said. “And preschoolers, you know, the little ones, were my passion.” Meanwhile she watched with dismay as violent, manically paced shows flooded the airwaves, seeming to drown out the scant healthier fare.

But Angela got a brilliant idea. Shows like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers were inducing kids to “model” violent behavior — specifically, to kick at the TV, in imitation of the fighting. “I thought, well, if they can get kids to kick, can’t I get kids to think and be smart, can’t I take the negativity of TV and turn it into a positive? Can’t I model the best of a preschool curriculum on television?”

Around the same time, the massive success of Barney and Friends, which debuted on PBS in 1992, altered market rules: The preschool demographic was a potential goldmine for any network with a winning touch. Nickelodeon quite reasonably solicited ideas for a kid game show. But Angela had misgivings. “Everybody was pitching Jeopardy! for preschoolers,” she recalled. “I was saying, ‘They’re just going to be playing with the buzzer.’ ”

While retaining the crucial goal of interactivity, Angela ditched adult notions of what a game show should be. Her plan was to have kids “play” with TV characters, answering questions and discovering words and pictures on the screen that would help advance a story. Angela joined with director Todd Kessler, and they in turn hired up-and-coming
animator Traci Paige Johnson — the three are credited as cocreators — to flesh out Angela’s basic idea. Weeks of brainstorming ensued. Those familiar with Blue’s Clues will be surprised to learn that the famous blue puppy was originally an orange cat. (The cat changed to blue, then to a dog, when the team learned another cat show was in the works.)

When Blue’s Clues premiered in September 1996, Angela sensed she and her partners had hit on something big. “I used to write e-mails that said, ‘Make sure you have your Emmy dress ready,’” she recalls. She was only half-joking. “The day we premiered, I literally opened the doors and I’m waiting for everyone to just kind of say, ‘Yay! Blue’s Clues!’ ” It didn’t happen quite that fast, but almost. The audience soon numbered 15 million.

“It’s surreal to me,” Mary Jane says of Angela’s success. “We’re just regular, ordinary people. Sometimes I’ll see something and I’ll say, ‘Angela, you wrote this?’ And she’ll say ‘Yeah, Mom.’ I mean, just to think that your child motivated all those people.”

Nothing But Blue Skies
In 2000 Malcolm Gladwell published his brainy blockbuster The Tipping Point. The book shows how little things “stick” and grow in a culture: how a few cases of syphilis turn into an epidemic, how an out-of-fashion shoe called Hush Puppies gains a fantastic second life. Gladwell devotes a full chapter to Sesame Street and its even “stickier” successor, Blue’s Clues. “It is difficult, as an adult, to watch Blue’s Clues and not wonder how this show could ever represent an improvement over Sesame Street,” Gladwell writes. “And yet it does. Within months of its debut in 1996, Blue’s Clues was trouncing Sesame Street in the ratings.”

Blue’s Clues took Sesame Street’s custom of intensive research by the best available minds and updated it by twenty-five years. The show banished the clever asides for adults — wordplay, cultural references — and aimed its effects solely at preschoolers. Angela would sometimes remind her writers, “It doesn’t matter whether you’re laughing; it matters whether the preschoolers are laughing, whether they get it.”

Daringly, the show scrapped the “magazine” format — lots of short segments — in favor of “a string-along narrative” that followed a single problem through to its resolution. Nickelodeon was dubious. Kids had gnat-like attention spans, right? Not right, the new research said. “Kids have the attention span if you tell the story in the right way,” Angela says. “But I had to prove it. Once I did, there was no problem.”

Of the show’s many innovations, the most important ones concern Angela’s recognition that preschoolers are hardly passive TV watchers, says Daniel Anderson, a noted children’s TV expert who consulted on Blue’s Clues. “They are mentally engaged with the show or they don’t watch. Given the opportunity, they become physically engaged as well, talking to the characters in the TV show, ‘helping’ them and so on. Although these things have been tried on TV before, Angela was the first to use these ideas in a coherent and disciplined manner. Children’s television has not been the same since.”

One innovation that seems puzzling to adults but makes perfect sense to kids is “the pause.” In solving a puzzle, Steve (or Joe) enlists his audience’s help by asking questions. Then he pauses while waiting for an answer, “a preschooler’s pause, several beats longer than any adult would ever wait for an answer,” Gladwell observes in his book. Alice Wilder, head of research for both Blue’s Clues and Super Why!, remarked, “The main character stops and makes you feel like he’s actually listening to you.” Kids respond by chattering to the screen, totally involved. The device is now so common (think of Dora the Explorer and its pause) that it seems to have always been there.

“Angela’s the best of the best, as far as I’m concerned,” says Wilder. “There aren’t a lot of creators who think the way she does, with such an amazing ability to integrate creativity with curriculum.”

An unplanable element of magic plays a part in any huge hit. Steve Burns, who hosted the show from 1996 to 2002, became a hero to kids and an unlikely sex symbol to moms. “We were so picky. We wanted Mr. Rogers,” Angela recalls. Steve blew in to his audition with long scraggly hair and an earring. But during test sessions, “the kids would scream at Steve, they would totally talk to him. And they didn’t interact so much with the other hosts.”

Such was the fame of Blue’s Clues by 1998 that a Paul McCartney-like “Steve is dead” rumor circulated, and Steve and Angela had go on the Today Show to defuse it. Steve always viewed his Blue’s Clues stardom with modest good humor (“I’m a micro-celebrity. I’m only famous if you’re four.”), but after six years his indie rocker’s soul needed out. His departure had to be carefully lobbed into the storyline, lest preschoolers worry: Steve was going off to college and his brother, Joe, played by Donovan Patton in a heroic feat of shoe-filling, would take care of Blue in the meantime.

Why Not?
If Blue’s Clues is all about kindergarten readiness, then Super Why! is all about learning to read. The conventional thinking was that TV is a poor literacy tool. “Because reading and watching TV are two separate things, right?” Angela says. “How do you do reading on TV?”

The idea for Super Why! (designed for three-to six-year-olds) came to Angela a long time ago, while reading The Three Little Pigs to Robert, her brother. “He would ask, ‘Why does that third little pig know how to build a house out of bricks? Why is the Big Bad Wolf so mean?’” Angela considered how fairy tales generated questions that could be answered imaginatively, outside the frame of their given plots. One could even alter existing plots by changing a word or two. If you showed this on TV, then kids could “play” with letters and words, and, better yet, form their own ideas.

The four main characters — Littlest Pig, Red Riding Hood, Princess Pea and Whyatt Beanstalk — transform into Super Readers as they leap into a familiar fairytale where a problem has arisen. The man with the goose that lays the golden eggs, to cite one recent episode, urges the goose to lay and lay past the point of fatigue, then refuses to share the bounty with his neighbors. As Alpha Pig, Wonder Red, Princess Presto and Super Why!, our heroes rewrite the story so that the goose gets a rest and the man learns to share. “We thought if we could just get little boys, little girls too, before they’re into Batman and Spiderman and violence,” Angela said, “they would want to be superheroes with the power to read.”

Super Why!’s biggest fan is probably Ella Santomero, age six. “Once Ella was watching a Peter Rabbit episode where the answer to the problem was love,” recalls Greg, an Emmy Award-winning designer/creative director at NBC who now stays home with the kids. “When it concluded she turned to her mother and said simply, ‘Mommy, that is so you.’ That Ella drew an immediate parallel to her mom is a testament to the warmth and creativity that continually and unconsciously make their way into her programs. It’s not in her nature to take off the ‘mom’ hat — much of children’s programming should take note.”

By one measure, the all-important attention span test, Super Why! is scoring unprecedentedly well. “When Blue’s Clues appeared we had like eighty percent attention span, which is unheard of, and our ratings were ridiculously high,” says Angela. “And on Super Why! we got around ninety-six percent, and now we’re the number three show on PBS Kids, number one with moms.” Parents with young children who drag them off to Toys ‘R’ Us are noticing a proliferation of Super Why! products (dolls, toys, clothes, learning aids, books) designed to enhance the show’s visibility and curriculum. “Now that we’re going to be everywhere,” Angela says, “we’re just on the cusp of breaking out.”

It’s a heady time for Angela Santomero. But the moments that mean most to her are educator moments, not business ones. “Just the other day I was getting off at the Greenwich train station and a dad and his two kids were running up the stairs singing a Blue’s Clues song,” she says. At this point in our interview Angela had a victim-of-Barbara Walters moment. She was telling me about a voicemail she received in the office from a mother with a very bad stutter. The woman was trying to get across how important Blue’s Clues was to her disabled son. “It was hard for her to get through her words,” Angela recalls, “and she said, ‘I wrote everything down so I could convey...’” Here Angela breaks off tearily before resuming, “‘...so I could convey what the show means to my kid. He’s autistic and he wasn’t talking, and he said his first words to your show.’” Angela smiles. “I still get chills.”