PBS Kids Head Sara DeWitt Says ‘Creativity Is Most Exciting’ Outside of Traditional Media

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TheWrap/PBS Kids

PBS Kids SVP and general manager Sara DeWitt always thought she would go into publishing after earning her English degree with a focus on children’s literacy development from Stanford University. But after taking an “experimental class” for her master’s degree, her entire career trajectory changed.

“The idea was that you had all these computer science folks who were suddenly in positions where they had to write story to get people through game environments and you had all these English majors who understood story but were afraid of the technology,” DeWitt told TheWrap for this week’s Office With a View. “My prerequisite for that class was having to learn HTML and then I got paired with computer science students to tackle different challenges and create different media types and I came out of it thinking there’s something really interesting here about what I’ve been thinking about with kids and story and what you could do in an interactive space.”

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In 1999, DeWitt applied to PBS as they were launching a new website for kids.

“They were looking for the second person to come on to help realize a project that Fred Rogers wanted, which was to bring his ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ website to life to kids because he felt like this was a place for kids to explore his neighborhood and play with his characters in a new way,” she said. “So I came in through the interactive side and tried to think about what interactive storytelling meant, what was the early game space going to be for kids and could you apply the same principles that went into educational television to educational gaming and to interactive content.”

Her advice for anyone looking to break into the media industry is to look outside of traditional media.

“There’s still a lot of people who think if I want to get into television or if I want to get into media, I’m looking at like half-hour, scripted content and there’s so many other pathways that need that same creative talent, production capability and those same skills, whether that’s short form, podcasting, or even hybrids,” she said. “I think that’s where a lot of the creativity in this industry is the most exciting right now and I think there are going to be more opportunities.”

She sees the narrative storytelling of gaming as a growing area of potential in kids’ education.

“I think it’s just widening that aperture, looking at the other media types that are out there and realizing that these skills are applicable to all these different spaces,” she added.

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What is a specific experience that has influenced your career?
I applied to this job because I was a “Mister Rogers” fan as a kid and in college was studying some of the work he was doing around child development and was kind of amazed. It was really much more innovative than I think people today understand. Breaking that fourth wall, talking directly to kids, giving them pauses, really doing different things with media. Same with Jim Henson and what he was doing and Joan Ganz Cooney on “Sesame Street” in terms of using those tools from advertising to introduce kids to letter and numbers, trying to play with media differently and play with the technology differently. So those were kind of the reasons why I was interested in non-commercial kids’ media. I felt like it opened up more possibility for experimentation and innovation and that’s what I would say is like kind of something that I’ve learned over and over again.

What is a major lesson that you have learned in your career?
It’s really about understanding where the audience is coming from and what they’re gonna resonate with. There are so many assumptions that we’ve made about how kids would use something that proved to be completely wrong once you put it in front of the kid, because you’re not a kid, you’re not your audience member and you have to think about where they’re coming from.

I have to constantly put it in front of the audience and see what they’re doing with it in order to really make the best content possible for them. And that’s proved to be the same for parents… you have your own way of doing things, your own ideas of what people would do and there are other people who really are going to do it differently and you need to be aware of that.

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What strikes you most about how the industry landscape has changed over the years?
I started in 1999 and the landscape has changed a lot. When we launched our streaming video player, it was web-only at the time and we were really thinking about easier access of distribution, about kids in libraries and community centers and just being another way that they could access content.

2021 is where we saw digital distribution eclipse broadcast for us and for kids in particular and that is a big moment for our industry to really be thinking about the mechanisms for delivery. But I personally just feel like this is just the way kids are getting television today. This is where we need to be.

We’re in a moment of such change and upheaval in the media industry and the impact on kids is going to be really interesting to watch. Over these last few years when stay-at-home orders went into place in 2020, we watched our traffic go through the roof on every platform and it was exciting to see that we were poised and ready and could be there for families… but it also accelerated so many changes in how kids use media and technology… I think watching what kids are doing right now is gonna be a real bellwether for the whole industry.

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What is a common industry problem that you feel is being unaddressed? What is your potential solution to that problem?
As an industry, we’re not thinking enough about accessibility and making sure that our content is something that can be reached and used and really enjoyed by more and more Americans. There are some standards, like closed-captioning standards, but there’s a lot more universal design features that we could be adopting. Particularly if you think about kids who are visually or hearing impaired, ways that you work with contrast, ways that you think about audio descriptions or kids who are on the autism spectrum, adults who are on the autism spectrum, being able to lower the the soundtrack in the background so things aren’t quite as distracting, there isn’t as much sensory overload. There’s some standard things we as an industry could do that could make all of this content a lot more enjoyable by a wider audience within the United States.

Are there any trends you’re looking at?
We’re thinking a lot about the intersection between voice technology and video and obviously that has an AI component as well. If you think about going back to where I started with “Mister Rogers,” the idea of talking directly to the audience and pausing, the hope was that that child would respond and sometimes they did respond out loud. The technology now allows us to do that within the video itself.

We’re doing an experiment right now with one of our science shows “Elinor Wonders Why” with UC Irvine with an NSF grant. If Elinor were to stop midway through her episode and say to the child, “Why do you think it’s taking so long for this honey to come out of the bottle?” We actually now have the technology for that child to respond and for that child and Elinor to have a conversation. For us, that means there’s a greater potential for learning gains from this because if you have that conversation, you’re gonna come away with a better understanding of that scientific topic. So we’re looking at how do we take this technology and incorporate it into our video in a way that’s furthering that educational potential.

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What are your thoughts on Hollywood’s fears surrounding AI?
The best possibility is actually putting the human with the AI… I think the opportunity for whimsy and creativity is greater when we’re using that human input… There is a human creative potential that can be helped by the AI to be able to get to some greater gains and so I think this “either or” kind of thing isn’t the right way to look at it.

Are you concerned about possible consolidation in the media industry? What have your discussions with Congress been like?
Congressional support is still very strong for public media. We serve a very different kind of mission. As our CEO often says, we use the same tools but we’re in a different business. So I think there’s still broad support for being where we are. I think we also have so much trust with parents on our own platforms. We have the PBS Kids video app and we are continuing to see those streams grow because I think there are a lot of parents who are so happy to have a trusted free offering. So it’s gonna be really interesting to watch how the landscape shifts and that certainly will have impacts on us, different producers we can work with and how we can distribute our content but we really are in such a different space.

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