Jocelyn Stevenson: The empire that Bob built

HIT Entertainment struck gold with Bob the Builder - but, as senior vice president Jocelyn Stevenson tells Chris Sullivan, making children's TV is rarely so straight-forward
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The Independent Online

"It's my job to come up with all the gentle, lovely, wonderful pre-school programming that the company can then go out and do all the marketing and branding then sell the toys and the DVD's and so on and so on," declares Jocelyn Stevenson, the Emmy award-winning senior vice-president for HIT Entertainment, the company responsible for, among others, Rubadubbers, Pingu and more importantly Bob The Builder.

Having taken the company's annual turnover to £148 million for the year ending July 2004, Bob the Builder is a worldwide phenomenon that, broadcast in some 200 countries, has surprised even Stevenson. "When we came up with Bob we said 'Let's get these machines that talk' and we thought 'Gosh no-one has done this before' but we didn't expect this."

Bob's overwhelming financial success is due only in part to the massively influential TV platform. "At HIT our programmes have to meet a certain criteria," declares Stevenson, "They have to be potentially classic, educational and global with high production values, a definite USP and also what we call extendibility which means it has be able to extend past the broadcast platform and be easily merchandised and licensed."

Merchandising and branding are today essential to the success of any such programme as they cover the cost of the sophisticated CGI animation that - unlike the cardboard cut-outs of Captain Pugwash - costs an absolute fortune.

"You don't make anywhere near as much as the programme costs to make from TV broadcasting," adds Stevenson. "So you have to create something that will sell merchandise that the parents are happy to buy."

HIT, along with most of the main pre-school TV production companies, painstakingly look for gaps in the merchandising market before a potential project begins.

"I used to think you just get the show on TV and that was it but I've now learnt how incredibly naïve I was. It's a real science and can make or break a project," she says, adding that before embarking on a new project she always meets with branding experts "really early on in the process" as "they know what is in the stores, what kids are buying and how an idea would work in the market place".

But history has shown that no amount of market research, merchandise, PR or marketing can ensure a product's success. In the end it is down to what catches the eye and imagination of that most unpredictable of beasts - the child. "If you set out to make a formularised successful kids TV show you will fail because no one knows what makes kids like this or that. You can do all the research you want but it is still very much hit or miss."

She identifies Harry Potter as a "great example" of the unpredictability of this market. "JK Rowling just set out to write books and she just struck a chord with kids and I believe she was quite bewildered by the success . We were not ticking boxes with Bob the Builder - it just worked."

One of the first boxes to tick in pre-school TV is that marked Parental Approval. "We spend a lot of time talking to parents and finding what they want," admits Stevenson, her Californian accent only slightly bruised after 26 years resident in the UK .

"They have to feel good putting their kids down in front of the TV. It has to be something safe and good that children will learn from and the new eco-friendly Bob the Builder series is a good example as it makes the parents feel good about the future and that is what we are creating here. It's a tremendous responsibility."

For Stevenson, integrity is what pre-school TV is all about. She left California's Stanford University in the early seventies with a degree in child psychology and development and opened a day care centre for infants. "One day I was trying to keep a few kids occupied while we swept up," she recalls, "So I put Sesame Street on and it was like I was hit by lightning. It was so exciting and revolutionary. So I left the day centre, packed my bags, went to New York and knocked on the door of Sesame Street's production company, the Children's Television Workshop, and got a job there as a secretary. I just had to be involved."

Sesame Street was the undisputed first emperor of branding, creating toys, books, records, lunch boxes, clothing and school bags, all of which conveyed the same message as the show. The UK, meanwhile, was still peering through Play School's round window.

"We were one of the first programmes that had all the toys to support itself. It was non-profit making but once people saw the money that could be made a lot jumped on the bandwagon and cynically exploited the medium," remembers Stevenson of Sesame Street. She went onto write and produce The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock and The Secret Life of Toys.

Sesame Street began in 1969 as a "simple initiative to provide adequate preparation for American working class inner city kids prior to school", says Stevenson. "Someone had the idea to use TV to teach them. They thought if my kid can sing a TV ad he can sing his ABC so why not use TV to close the gap and help the poor kids catch up with the rich who could afford pre-schooling.

"Jim Henson was brought in and redefined puppetry on TV while an educator from Harvard came on board to ensure that the kids were getting the right info. It was radical, it was fresh but they didn't set out to do this revolutionary world-famous programme that would still be going 40 years later. They all had a real passion for teaching kids which worked and I have tried to hold onto those values throughout my career."

Now at the top of her game, Stevenson describes her work as "a tough job in a tough business" but then adds "but I get to make JCB's talk and put words in the mouths of tomatoes - so I think it's just fine."

Bob the Builder, Project: Build It is on CBBC.