School Zone Publishing Company is getting ready to unleash season two of its fun, educational children’s series, Charlie & Company. The Toy Book recently spoke with Barbara Peacock, the creative director of Charlie & Company, as well as its producer, Adam Mellema, about the show and upcoming plans for the brand, including toys.
The Toy Book (TTB): First, can you tell me about Charlie & Company?
Adam Mellema (AM): Charlie & Company is all about a golden retriever named Charlie. He’s a live-action dog, and the show follows Charlie and his best friend Miss Ellie, a preschool teacher, and these educational adventures that they go on. In each episode they go to a different place: a firehouse, a symphony hall, or a hospital, and when they’re there in that environment, some of Charlie’s animated friends prepare a puzzle hunt for them. So throughout the episode, as Charlie and the kids at home are solving problems and doing lessons, they earn puzzle pieces. So by the end of the show they get to see the puzzle that they’ve completed. So it’s a really nice opportunity for Charlie and Miss Ellie to invite the home audience along with them into a new place where they complete lessons themed on that space where they go.
Barbara Peacock (BP): There’s a lot of audience participation, which for us, we were a little unsure of at the time, but that was very successful for kids. So we did some research. We used a group called Dubit, out of the UK, who also did a lot of research on Bob the Builder when they were redoing [it]. We connected with them and they did a research project with moms and kids, and we found out that the kids responded all the way through the show. So we were on the other side of the glass watching and noticed that the kids were screaming out the answers. Very few shows get audience participation like that while kids are watching, so we were very happy. So that’s something we’ve really kept going with and made it a little harder to figure out at the beginning. Kids catch on very quickly, so we made it a little more difficult this season.
AM: I come from the broadcasting world, so kids TV is really my heart. So I come from Los Angeles, where I’ve had the good fortune to work with a lot of those bigger companies, and so when I heard that School Zone wanted to do their own original series, for their tablet, seeing a little bit who School Zone is as a company and how quality and education are such lynchpins of this company, I was really excited to work with Barb and the team to develop a show that would educate kids at a speed that would feel comfortable for them, and to do it in a really excellent way. I’ve been having a great time with these guys.
TTB: What else did you learn from working with the focus group?
BP: We work with Brian Vander Ark of The Verve Pipe. He writes our music and the songs, and the songs and music resonate with the kids because they tap their toes and they try to sing along. But in the first season, we had a stage that had big puzzle pieces on it, and Brian was playing the guitar with Miss Ellie and singing parts of it, and that did not resonate with kids. They didn’t get the connection between him being there with Miss Ellie on a stage and playing music, and then what it was like to be in the episode. So we still have all the same music and singing and everything throughout the episode, but we just don’t show that portion because kids weren’t interested in watching that. Kids really want to see Charlie and Miss Ellie and they want to go on the adventures. They love the music and they love singing along, but they want it to stay within that story.
That was pretty easy to modify. We also added some things that we wanted to enrich the episode with, like a few more people that they meet within each episode. In the Coast Guard episode, we had Miss Ellie’s cousin, Smitty, who is part of the Coast Guard. So the kids meet that person. In the first season we really didn’t do that, it was just Miss Ellie and Charlie. Now this season, we’ve introduced a few more people in there, so it’s a little more lifestyle-like, conversational—more like a normal TV program.
AM: I think with these next episodes, viewers will find that this season is a little bit more story-driven. One of the things that came out of the research is that kids so love the animated characters who are Charlie’s friends on the show, so we definitely gave them more to do, and we explore their personalities a little bit more in this next batch of shows.
One of the things we were really interested to find out, because Charlie is a live-action dog during most of the show—but then there are times where he goes into the animated world and interacts with his animated friends as an animated dog—we were kind of wondering whether kids resonate more with Charlie when he’s a live-action dog or more when he’s an animated dog who looks like a cartoon. We were surprised to find out that it was about 50/50. It was right down the middle in terms of kids’ preferences.
BP: They were certainly in love with Charlie. He is such a loveable presence that they all, if you had to ask them who was in the show, the very first person they’re going to say is Charlie. They were really excited about watching him do his thing.
AM: We have a number of children who appear in the episodes, and all of them were asking constantly, When do we get to meet Charlie? They didn’t really care about Miss Ellie all that much.
TTB: What makes Charlie & Company different from other preschool series?
BP: It’s a little more back to the traditional form of programs in the ’70s and ’80s, because it’s a little more structured in the curriculum, which was important to us as an educational company. We see that our products resonate with kids, whether it be a workbook, or a flashcard, or our app. So we stuck with that in this program, and you don’t see a lot of that today in programming. I don’t believe they’re going in that direction. What we found from parents is that they really like that. “Where can we find that?” they asked. “This is great for the end of the day when kids need to relax and you don’t want to put them with a cartoon that gets them hyped up. We want them to watch something where they’re being thoughtful and I can sit with them and enjoy it and we can do it together.”
AM: We’ve been really deliberate about the pacing of the show, to not push it too fast, to allow it to be a very clean and streamlined educational experience for the kids who are engaging with the show.
BP: It’s education all the way through it, so that’s nice, but kids really enjoy it. The funny thing we learned from the research and watching kids respond, [is] kids thought they were so smart. The kids that were watching thought that they were smarter than the kids on the show, because they would answer before them. Which was very endearing for me to watch, because they were so proud they got the answer right, and then the kids on the show say it.
AM: It’s similar to a show like Super Why or Blue’s Clues, where you hear those kids’ voices so the audience feels like they’re part of a group.
BP: That was very deliberate and I think that has paid off and it really resonates and makes the show special. I don’t think a lot of people are combining live-action and animation anymore, that’s a tough thing to do, especially with a dog, having an animal in there. It was a challenge shooting for the first time last season, handling that. It’s quite a challenge to have a live dog, and then making him animated and pull everything off but I think we’ve got a winning program.
TTB: Why is the Little Scholar Tablet a good fit for the series?
BP: The Little Scholar tablet is all about 3- to 7-year-olds, which is where the series is geared towards. It really starts at that young age where they can enjoy it and learn something. For a 7-year-old, they watch it and enjoy it, but they know all the answers, so they feel really smart when they’re watching the show. It’s a good fit for Little Scholar because it’s not manipulative like apps are where you’re doing things. You get to relax a little bit, but you still are learning and you get to do it in another way. All kids like to sit back and watch some TV or watch videos, and what we needed on Little Scholar was something that still was educational, but that gave them a time to enjoy meeting some new characters and getting to know Charlie. It’s a great bedtime thing, so if they don’t want to be actively learning on the tablet with the apps, they can do this instead. It was a great way to fill out a really complex curriculum.
AM: That’s one of the things I really love about Charlie & Company as it applies to the Little Scholar tablet. In my experience, there is a lot of licensed content being put onto tablets, so I love that we’ve built this show that is so built on the fundamentals of what’s important about School Zone as a company. It’s School Zone’s own original series that’s designed for tablets.
BP: Even the interface of the tablet includes some of the characters from Charlie & Company, so kids will look at it and go, “Oh, I know. That’s Nester Fields, right?” After they watch the series, they’ll come back to the interface and say, “I know who that is,” so it really will have a full, 360-degree feel to it [in which] everything is intermixed.
TTB: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
AM: We did add plush for all of our animated characters.
BP: So right now we have three plush characters: Charlie the dog, Levi Cottonwood (who is our beaver buddy who does math), and Socrates, an owl who is always wise and is book-smart. So far, Charlie is the most popular, but we’ve had people calling to ask when the next plush is coming out.
We also have a new app called Puzzle It Out, which goes along with the show and has some video clips in it. It’s for the preschool age group, so we’ll see Charlie and some of those characters coming back in those apps. Since some of these characters really resonate with kids, we’ll be building on that with some of these future projects.
AM: I think that will continue on into our YouTube space. I think we’ll continue to find brand extensions as we have so ourselves fallen in love with these characters. We will put them into lots of different spaces.
TTB: So it’s not only going to be for the School Zone tablet, we’ll be able to find Charlie & Company on additional platforms?
BP: Charlie & Company has an app on both the Android platform and on iOS, and it’s free right now, so people can check out the show. You get one of the episodes—about the fire station, which is called “Hot Dog”—and if you download that app, you can watch that episode for free and the other episodes have a fee structure to them. There are certainly going to be customers of ours who have devices other than our own tablet, and we want this show to be able to be seen by any child who is in this age range. We are also very interested in getting it into broadcast. But we only had seven episodes at the beginning, so now we will have 13 episodes and we will be able to start searching for the right partner.
TTB: Is School Zone the manufacturer for the plush?
TTB: Where can the plush be found at retail?
AM: As part of this production cycle, we also filmed a handful of digital shorts as well. So just as the show itself is so educational, our digital shorts are little fun videos that allow you to see the other sides of some of the characters. So that will be populating the Charlie & Company universe as well.