Angela Santomero is ready to stop being so blue. Ten years after co-creating Blue's Clues for Nickelodeon, she and Samantha Freeman, a former Nickelodeon marketing executive, started Out of the Blue Productions, and are now working on Super Why! which will premiere on PBS this fall.
In Blue's Clues terms, Santomero and Freeman have “skiddoed” to a higher plane. They are now entrepreneurs who take fundraising meetings with private-equity investors, apply for grants and have employees of their own—about 20 in New York and another team of animators in Canada. The only vestige of the old days is the light-blue paint on the walls in their Manhattan office space.
“This is what we were meant to do,” says Freeman, 40, the mother of a 4-month-old and stepmother of two teenagers. A graduate of Tufts with an MBA from Harvard, she handles most of the business end of the productions.
The move was actually initiated by Nickelodeon about 18 months ago when the network ended production of original episodes of Blue's Clues to concentrate instead on specials (which will still involve the duo).
Santomero, 39, who pitched Blue's Clues based on her master's thesis research, oversees more of the creative and research aspects of their projects. Super Why, a show that mixes 2D and 3D animation to promote reading skills to 3- to 6-year-olds, also came from her graduate research (as well as from her experience raising a 6-year-old and 3-year-old). It will start off with 65 episodes and is being tested this summer in five cities in one-week reading camps, financed by the Corporation of Public Broadcasting.
The duo believe their success came from their guiding philosophy to engage kids directly. “Kids are active learners,” says Santomero. “They will respond when you ask them a direct question.” That theory is what made Blue's Clues so revolutionary. Santomero learned in her studies that young kids need time to answer questions, so she made giving them time a feature of the show. In addition, she says it's important that the host talks directly to the audience, an idea inspired by Mr. Rogers.
“[Executives at Nick] thought we were crazy,” she says.
Not now. “In the history of innovative pre-school programming, there will be a whole chapter on Angela. She's really a forward-thinking person,” says Linda Simensky, senior director of children's programming for PBS. “The approach she's taken with her company is to integrate research. They understand how to use it in the development of a show without over-using it.”
And they're good at deducing clues, too. The first inkling Santomero had that she may have made an impact on American culture with her creation of Blue's Clues came from a visit to the boardwalk on the New Jersey shore soon after the show premiered. “The big prize for carnival games that year were unlicensed, knock-off Blue's Clues dolls,” she recalls. “I knew it was something big.”