My Biggest Mistake: Geraldine Laybourne

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Geraldine Laybourne, the President of Nickelodeon was co-founder of The Media Centre for Kids, a resource library for children, schools and media, and set up Early Birds Specials, a TV production company, before joining Nickelodeon as programme manager in 1980.

MY BIGGEST mistake was in not being in touch with our consumers. Nickelodeon, in the early days, was a fairly low- profile TV network for kids. Nobody really knew or cared what we did, so it was easy to make mistakes.

Having been a teacher and researcher, I brought a lot of ideas which had been formed by worthy colleagues in the educational arena. I wanted to give kids positive role models on television - to help them become better citizens of the world - so in 1982 I joined forces with a Canadian company to co-produce a series called Going Great. It presented a range of wonderfully talented kids - concert cellists, artists, sailors, gymnasts, the lot.

It was an enormous financial investment - I committed a third of my annual programming budget - and we put it on the air as proud as could be. Almost instantly, we started to see an enormous fall-off in ratings. I couldn't understand it; we had had such high hopes for this series.

But as soon as we went out and talked to the kids, we found out why. Instead of inspiring them, it was having the opposite effect: seeing such perfect children was depressing them.

It was so obvious, once they said it. What we were doing was squashing any ambitions they did have by showing them a variety of things they couldn't do. We had wanted them to feel good about themselves, not to feel insignificant.

The message to me was loud and clear: when it comes to children's television, adults don't always know best. We needed to be far less ivory tower in our approach, to get rid of our prejudices about what we thought kids needed and listen instead to what they wanted.

After 12 months, I took the show off the air and wrote it off as a loss, despite having a three-year contract. It was very well produced, but it had completely backfired on us.

It was a great lesson to learn so early in my career, and helped change the direction of Nickelodeon. It taught me to really take children seriously - how to talk to them and how not to talk to them. And above all, not to preach.

We became less idealistic. I believe we are doing the same job we set out to do, which is to improve children's lives, but in a completely different way. For example, we spend a lot of time finding out about the sort of problems they are going through, then use humour to help them deal with those situations.

I do love a good mistake. It means that you are on your way to success, because you won't be making that mistake again.

Today, Nickelodeon is the world's largest producer of children's programming, and as a result of the lessons we learned - such as the one from Going Great - we probably do more research than any other television group in the world.

Statistical research is fine and dandy, but if you waited for statistical research on everything you did, you'd never do anything. What we do is to go out and talk to groups of 12 children at a time from different sociological backgrounds.

We have 250 focus groups a year in the United States, and we talked to hundreds of kids in Britain before the launch of Nickelodeon UK.

The moral is: whatever your business, you have to listen to your consumer.

(Photograph omitted)

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