As a young girl, Deborah Forte was an avid reader, whipping through classics, biographies and “every single book in my elementary-school library except for science fiction,” she says. As president of Scholastic Entertainment, Forte has turned children's books into more than 300 television episodes, including those for animated series like Maya & Miguel, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Goosebumps and The Magic School Bus.
“Our business is about creating meaningful franchises for television,” says Forte. “For us to do a program, it has to have a unique reason to be.”
That taste for non–cookie-cutter programming might have been influenced a bit by Forte's childhood years, which weren't devoted exclusively to reading: Growing up in Lexington, Mass., she was enthralled by Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, which were unlike anything on TV at the time. “I just loved the tone of that show,” she says. “It had very adult humor and parody and all sorts of things.”
“I Had To Learn How To Produce”
As a liberal-arts major at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., she wasn't sure of her career path, just that she wanted to live in New York City. But upon graduating in 1975, Forte decamped with friends for Mexico's Pacific coast. She stayed for several months, taking photographs (a hobby she still practices) and studying Spanish. The temporary immersion in a Hispanic culture would prove valuable later in her career.
Forte soon indeed moved to New York, where her liberal-arts background attracted job offers from CBS Television and Viking Press. Thinking she “never wanted to work in television,” she recalls, she chose the publishing company. After rotating through several departments, Forte landed in sales and marketing. There, she started the Special Markets group, creating book-sales opportunities at non-traditional outlets, such as New York's Museum of Modern Art.
After eight years, the pace of publishing proved too slow, and Forte decided that working in TV might not be so bad after all. In 1984, she joined Scholastic Productions as VP of new business development, working on sitcoms and after-school specials. “My career really was much more focused at Scholastic”—because it turned out that she “loved” working in the medium.
Looking at Scholastic's assets in its publishing content and video programming, Forte saw the opportunity to expand home video and collaborations with TV networks.
A breakthrough came in 1990 when Forte spun Scholastic's The Baby-Sitters Club books into an HBO series. “That changed the shape of our media business and created a direction for me,” she says. “I then came back and had to learn how to produce it.”
In the early '90s, Forte began hearing from increasingly worried parents and teachers that many girls and minorities had tuned out science education by the time they reached middle school. She looked at The Magic School Bus, a popular Scholastic book series, as a way to create a hands-on, field-trip–style show that enabled children to learn science in a fun way. Scholastic received a grant from the National Science Foundation and sold The Magic School Bus—with Lily Tomlin voicing the main character, teacher Ms. Frizzle—to PBS. It also ran on The Learning Channel and Discovery Kids (Tomlin won a Daytime Emmy in 1994).
Despite scoring with Magic School Bus, Forte ran into resistance when she began pitching another Scholastic book franchise, R.L. Stine's Goosebumps books, as an animated series that would encourage young boys to read. Educational concerns and entertainment didn't mix, TV executives told her, and besides, kids wouldn't follow an anthology. But Goosebumps began airing on Fox Kids in 1995 and was sold in more than 60 countries. The series also goosed book sales, Forte says, which have passed the 250 million mark.
“The fact that people think that education and entertainment are mutually exclusive is ridiculous,” says Forte, “Fortunately, we didn't listen.”
Just as she had taken cues from parents and educators in launching Magic School Bus, Forte responded to feedback from early-childhood care providers when she resolved in the mid '90s to animate classic book series Clifford the Big Red Dog. Forte believed in the project's ability to ease preschool kids' discomfort in unfamiliar social situations: Clifford's large size and red fur represented physical differences, and warm reception by his peers taught social acceptance.
But making the idea work took four years, and the show launched in 2000. Forte “just kept working on it in different iterations,” says Martha Atwater, VP, special projects, Scholastic Entertainment. “She's very smart about adapting and thinking on her feet.”
Sometimes, It's Instinct
Not every show Forte undertakes is prompted by consultations with children's experts. Sometimes she just goes by instinct. Her admiration for Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy (“smart and funny and warm”), combined with her experience living in Mexican communities, led to the animated series Maya & Miguel.
“She knows the DNA of this character. She has good rhythm, comic timing and a great sense of drama,” says Maya & Miguel producer Machi Tantillo. The series launched in October, aided by a $14 million grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS, and now reaches 97% of the U.S.
Two decades after Forte joined Scholastic, the entertainment division she heads includes home video, merchandising, brand marketing and international components. Forte plans to keep building. “Convergence is necessitating that we look at our programming and our media business in new ways,” she says. “I hope my greatest contribution hasn't occurred yet.”