This month we heard from Jennifer Hamburg who spoke about writing for children's television. In addition to being an Emmy-winning children’s television writer and story editor, she is also the author of picture books A MOOSE THAT SAYS MOO, MONKEY AND DUCK QUACK UP!, and the upcoming BILLY BOO IS STUCK IN GOO picture book and HAZY BLOOM middle grade series. Jennifer started by telling us how she got started in writing for children's television. After working in several local theaters and writing scripts for children's theater in Austin, she moved to New York, got her book of plays published, and pursued a graduate degree from Columbia. After graduating she wanted to do educational research, and landed a job with Dr. Alice Wilder, head of research and development for Blue's Clues. While Jennifer was thrilled to be doing research to develop various children's programs, she continued to pursue her desire to write for children's television and got her first break when she wrote a script for Little Einsteins.
Jennifer explained that most writers for chidlren's television are freelance, but there are head writers as well who work specifcally for one show. She is able to work from her current home in Houston, Texas because of the contacts she made while still in New York. She explained the process of writing a script for a children's television, which begins with brainstorming and pitches. In this phase, she is on the phone with various writers who work together to come up with ideas for stories. They pitch ideas and talk about which characters to feature. This process is driven by curriculum, the characters, and a possible season arc (such as having a new baby or adopting). Different shows have different curriculums. For example, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood has a social and emotional curriculum that includes themes like sharing or what to do if you get hurt. This initial stage of development ends with a story assignment to develop into a story idea.
The next stage is working out the story idea into a one page premise to give to the producer and network. This will include an overview of the story and conveys the main conflict, resolution and takeaway. It will also establish the curriculum goals and include the song placement and theme. Most children's shows include songs within the episode which are produced by a composer. After turning this in, the writer will receive notes from various departments. Production will consider what is possible to do in an episode, and the cost. If the shoot requires a beach scene, they may suggest changing it to a park scene if they already have a park set. The writer will often negotiate to serve the best possible story while still staying within the confines of budget. The research department will consider if the theme is age appropriate and offer additional notes if necessary.
Once the writer has all the notes back, they develop an outline, which will generally be four to five pages and will give the flavor of the episode. This is where the bulk of the work happens. Jennifer explained that each of these stages generally takes about a week, with a couple weeks in between to get back notes and feedback. In the outline, the writer irons out story points, the flow and the arc. She will establish scenes and play with the order, try out dialogue, and establish beats. Beats are the moments within the scene when something new happens. For example, two characters are sitting in the kitchen having breakfast. The mother walks in and drops a carton of milk, making a huge mess. This is the beat that keeps the action moving. In the outline, the writer will also make sure that the pacing works, establish the three acts of the episode, and work out any production concerns. The goal is to get all questions resolved during the outline stage, so the actual draft is fun to write. It should include one conflict, with no subplots, so the preschool audience will be able to follow it.
The first draft is where the writer's creativity will roam free, within the structure of the outline. The script will follow the outline, address any notes, and should be as final as possible, even though the writer will technically turn in their "first draft." It needs to be as close to ready as they can get it. Jennifer will have other readers look at her script before turning it in, and makes sure to include where the songs will be placed and all "show standards." These are things that are standard to the show or a character. For example, Daniel Tiger always opens his door and waves at the beginning of the show, or maybe a voice-over announces the name of the episode each time.
A research report follows the first draft. Researchers take the writer's script into local schools in the New York area, along with still pictures, and get their feedback. They let the writer know what they do and don't understand, whether or not they get the jokes, and if they generally liked the episode. This was the kind of work Jennifer used to do when she was just beginning in the industry, and she values the opinions of kids (though she is appalled that the ones in Manhattan didn't know what hopscotch was!). The last stage is the post production draft, in which any additional notes are incorporated and line counts are included to ensure that the script is the right length.
Jennifer has worked on shows for Disney Junior, Nick Jr., PBS Kids, and Amazon Studios, on hit shows such as Doc McStuffins, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Super Why!, Henry Hugglemonster, and Creative Galaxy. She generously shared her expertise with our chapter, enlightening us to the hard work and details that go into writing shows for some of the youngest of children. We were so thankful for her time!