Back in the early ’90s, before she was the renowned children’s television producer and co-creator of Nickelodeon’s smash-hit Blue’s Clues, and long before she was living in Westchester’s town of Harrison, Angela Santomero was a fresh-faced student with dreams of making her mark as an educator, one classroom at a time.
Then, during her time studying psychology at The Catholic University of America, in Washington, DC, she noticed what she calls a “knee-jerk reaction” to the idea of toddlers and television — an all-encompassing belief that all television was bad for the developing brain.
“I thought that if television can have such a powerfully negative effect on kids, why can’t television be created to have an equally powerful, positive impact?” Santomero says. “Up until that point, I always thought that I was going to teach, but then I thought that if I could put the very best preschool curriculum on television, I could reach millions of kids at a time,” she explains.
This idea drove her straight into the realm of children’s television and ultimately became the inspiration behind Blue’s Clues — a next-generation, live-action/animated program that revolutionized what shows like Sesame Street launched nearly 30 years earlier, by incorporating an unprecedented level of viewer involvement. In the years since its 1996 debut on Nickelodeon, Blue’s Clues has emerged as one of the most widely watched shows on television among preschoolers.
After graduating from Catholic University, Santomero returned to the New York area with her sights set on creating exceptional educational television for kids. She earned a master’s degree in child developmental psychology and instructional media and education from Teachers College at Columbia University before heading over to Nickelodeon.
“I was familiar with Nickelodeon, so it made sense to me to focus on pitching them — making Nickelodeon the home where I would be able to put everything I ever learned into action,” Santomero explains. In the mid-1990s, Nickelodeon was seeking pitches for a game show for preschoolers. “I pitched this idea of a live-action host, like Mr. Rogers, and then a little animated character who would play interactive games with the preschool home viewer,” she says. That idea got approved, and Blue’s Clues was born.
With no background in television production, Santomero needed someone who could help her navigate this uncharted territory, so she turned to successful TV producer Traci Paige Johnson to become her partner. “I began creating scripts, testing them with preschool-aged viewers until I got it right. We kept perfecting concepts. We knew we had something very special when the kids started going berserk. By the time we presented the second clue, they were screaming,” she recalls. “When the Blues Clues ratings came in, we were the highest-rated premiere.”
With Blue’s Clues, Santomero and Johnson proved that kids weren’t couch potatoes. Instead, they innately wanted to play, to be involved in the action onscreen. Following Blue’s Clues, Santomero continued to change the landscape of educational program for preschoolers, producing a series of hits, including Super Why (which taught reading-readiness skills) and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood (which taught social skills) for PBS, to name some.
Angela Santomero with daughter Ella and husband Greg atop the iconic Blue’s Clues chair.
Ironically, when she first entered the business, Santomero was young, single, and childfree — drawing solely from her perspective as a teacher rather than as a parent. Today, 22 years after launching Blue’s Clues, Santomero and her husband, Greg, a creative director at NBC before he began his own boutique design studio, are happily raising their two teenage girls, ages 15 and 17, who grew up watching Blue’s Clues.
When she’s not thinking up innovative new pilots for the preschool set, Santomero says her favorite activity is heading to Rye with her girls for some quality mother-daughter time — shopping, eating, or just strolling along Purchase Street. The Santomeros also love to spend time outside, hiking, swimming, or traveling as a family.
“Before I was a wife and a mother, I had a childhood-development mindset. Still, everything changed when I had my own kids,” shares Santomero. “Kids’ true developmental needs suddenly became ridiculously important to me — I became a mama bear!”
With this new perspective, the idea for a new project for parents was born. Santomero wanted to provide a guide for parents, so she penned Preschool Clues: Raising Smart, Inspired, and Engaged Kids in a Screen-Filled World, which is aimed at helping parents rid themselves of the unnecessary guilt associated with letting their kids watch TV.
Through the book, Santomero teaches parents to understand how to use educational shows as an effective tool. “I wanted to help chip away all of this parental guilt that comes with TV. We’ve all felt it — but not all television is created equal. And I want parents to understand that there doesn’t need to be any guilt.”
In Preschool Clues, Santomero helps parents understand that well-written, well-researched programming can feed young minds, in the same way nutritious food feeds the body. “Most of the parents I talk to are surprised by how much research goes into every aspect of every show I make,” she explains. “So my book is a way to teach parents to use media as a teaching tool, so they may be rid of the shame.”
Santomero’s perspective may have evolved over the course of her 25-year career — as have the perspectives of the kids she seeks to educate and entertain. Still, her passion to empower, challenge, and build the self-esteem of preschoolers remains constant. When asked about what she hopes to accomplish next, the TV pioneer doesn’t miss a beat. “I want to grow new creators who are empowering kids,” she says with a smile. “I want to teach the next generation of creators how to think.”
Ali Jackson-Jolley is a freelance writer who lives and works in Westchester County, where she constantly meets fascinating locals to write about.