Why do I always start salivating when I’m invited to an event in the Viacom building? Oh yeah, it’s because they always put out the nicest spreads - and whatever they’re promoting is usually pretty interesting too.
Sometimes, it’s DreamWorks, sometimes it’s Nickelodeon… This morning it’s Nick Jr., and we’re going to learn where the channel’s going with its preschool programming. First stop seems to be nursery school; the lounge outside the screening room is filled with easels, crayons, coloring books – and preschoolers, imported for the occasion from local moms who write parenting blogs.
After a well-balanced breakfast (quiche, bagel and mini-muffin, thank you so much) Marva Smalls, Nickelodeon’s Executive veep of public affairs gets things rolling. The theme: a “commitment to education,” serving two-to-five year olds, the channel’s “most precious audience.”
Marva’s people have done their homework; seems half the kids out there arrive at school without the basic skills that will set them up to do some real larnin…’ and Nick Jr.’s gonna pick up the slack.
Dora the Explorer, the Nick Jr.’s superstar character (no relation to the well-known freeloader Dora the Shnorrer) is the linchpin of the effort, “like a friend you can totally trust. (Like, totally!) Seven key areas will be addressed (I forget what they were) while buzzwords like “empower” and “pro-social” are bandied about.
Teri Weiss, senior VP of Nick Jr. preschool picks up the baton. She starts by screening a sizzle reel of show clips set to a rockin’ beat that has the kids dancing in their seats, then reveals the campaign’s tag line: “Nick Jr.: the smart place to play.”
They’re not kidding; before anything gets animated “a small army of educational experts” is consulted on every show. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Nick Jr. seems to have mastered it: education+entertainment=painless learning.
Take Team Umizoomi for example. This boy/girl/robot trio specializes in geometric shapes; did you ever stop and think that cans, drinking straws, telescopes, flutes … they’re all cylinders?! Well, maybe you did, but if your four-year old didn’t know before, s/he will after hearing their zippy tune (and may even march around the house singing it). Then again, there wasn’t much they could do with ‘dodecahedron”…
Then you’ve got your monthly themes (“It’s a Wild Safari all this month on Nick Jr.”), complete with theme song featuring all the Nick Jr. characters on camera … or the “Kids Around the World” segments wherein kids extol their home towns. (Yay Brooklyn! Yay Malaysia!), not to mention your platform-based apps to carry the learning experience onto mom & dad’s iPads (parents, watch out for those PB&J stains)…
Things wrap up with voice-of-Dora Fatima Ptacek saying a few words to us. (Boy these kid performers spook me, they’re so self-possessed, self-aware – they’re like premature grown-ups. I’ll never forget then 12-year old Dakota Fanning at a Charlotte’s Web press event saying “I’d like to direct someday,” which happens to be the punchline of a Mother Teresa joke.) From there we’re escorted into the plush screening room to see the latest Dora special, wherein she and primate pal Boots help a lost mermaid find her way home, with plenty of songs, Spanish vocabulary and long pauses for the kids at home to chime in along the way. (Unfortunately the underwater garden octopus sounded nothing like Ringo Starr – missed opportunity!)
And all this effort just to force-feed pre-schoolers commercials between and during nifty educational programs, turn ‘em into little consumers, how exploitative can you… wait a second, all of Nick Jr.’s preschool programming is commercial free? Dammit, now I’m stuck with a ton of leftover cynicism I was saving up for the end of this article …