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Yeah, yeah, take it to PBS, right? Rachel Coleman has tried that. Well-meaning parents often advise the Salt Lake City performer to pitch her educational preschool show to public stations, she says, but even PBS is concerned about its bottom line, and her show doesn't fit the current mold for big ratings.
So Coleman has taken to Internet fundraiser Kickstarter to summon the roughly $500,000 she says she needs to produce "Rachel & The Treeschoolers," a 12-episode series that would approximate a full preschool curriculum.
Coleman says networks she's met with have told her they're not in the education business: It simply doesn't sell. In a meeting last year, Coleman recalls, Disney executives told her they were looking for something with "heart, magic and a great story."
"We have over and over been told that we have too much content, that we're teaching too much," she says. PBS expressed interest in Coleman's show after the relative success of her last production, sign-language instructional "Signing Time!", but ultimately chose to fund "Dinosaur Train" instead. Coleman doesn't fault them boys love dinosaurs and trains, after all but believes shows like hers are needed to fill a void in children's programming.
"There's no one pulling for educational television anymore," says Coleman, whose father is well-known Mormon composer Lex de Azevedo. "I don't think parents realize this. When they turn on the TV, there's no more Mr. Rogers. … Your children sit there and watch it, but they're drooling. It's mindless."
The 12 episodes aim to provide a year's worth of education. "Treeschoolers" is billed as "preschool … delivered," in which 3- to 5-year-olds learn with the aid of song to enhance long-term memory.
Sydnee Dickson, head of teaching and learning for the state Office of Education, cautions that a TV program can't replace the experience of attending preschool, which teaches children to play well with others and gain conversational skills.
"Active learning is the best form of learning and creates growth and brain development," Dickson says. "Having TV supplement that certainly is entertaining and can help kids learn, but as a form of learning, that's passive."
Coleman says she began working in children's television 12 years ago, after it was discovered that her daughter Leah was deaf. Coleman and her sister Emilie Brown teamed up with Leah and Emilie's son Alex to create VHS tapes about sign language for family and friends. They put the tapes on Amazon.com, and they became a sensation. Soon the group was on the set of NBC's "Today" show, being asked when more episodes would come out.
"We didn't mean to start a company," Coleman says, but demand was so high they took out a $1 million loan to complete "Signing Time!" and gave the rights to PBS. Coleman was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a Children's Series in 2008.
That cachet didn't translate to backing for "Treeschoolers." Even hits like "Dora the Explorer" spend a long time in the red, Coleman says, and networks public or otherwise are looking for sustained success that will eventually lead to the sale of clothes and toys.
Coleman says that with every $50,000 donated to her Kickstarter campaign, a new episode of "Treeschoolers" will be greenlit. Donors who spend over $55 will have access to all episodes and music if the series is completed. Thus far they have raised more than $70,000, crossing the $50,000 threshold to prompt production of a new episode on Monday.
Although Coleman makes money touring the nation and doing concerts, she says all the money from the Kickstarter campaign will go toward production of the show. "I don't take home a dime," she says.