There's A Lot to Learn from a Big, Red Dog
by Heather Won Tesoriero '96
On a sunny afternoon in her light-filled corner office, Deborah Forte K'75 takes on the following topics: media's role in educating and entertaining kids, industry challenges in a tough business environment and the juggling act of a working mother. While she chats amiably and deftly about all these things, she never acknowledges the, uh, dog in the room. The giant, stuffed canine seated beside her isn't just any dog, but Clifford, the Big Red Dog. He's a stellar product of Forte's media genius -- she took the beloved children's-book icon, gave him his own TV show and launched him to superstardom.
As the president of Scholastic Media, a division of children's book behemoth Scholastic Inc., Forte has been a pioneer in educational children's media. Her company creates original content for film, television, video and branded children's Web sites, and also adapts successful children's books into other media. She has produced more than 200 films and/or TV shows, including projects based on Clifford, The Magic School Bus, Goosebumps and the Dear America diary series. Her newest television endeavor is the original animated program Maya and Miguel, which debuted in October and currently airs on PBS.
Forte maintains there was no master plan on her part to ascend to the head of a company. From an early age, she had creative, rather than business leanings. Kirkland was a "great liberal arts education, a way for me to be exposed to a lot of different things that helped me develop intellectually, artistically, emotionally and socially," Forte said. "It gave me four years to look into different things, take different paths and decide what I really liked."
Kirkland led her to two great loves. It was there that she developed an enduring affinity for photography. She recalls with fondness learning how to shoot and develop film. Today, as a photography collector, she remains a loyal admirer of the medium, citing Diane Arbus, Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson as some of her favorite artists.
The other love that was kindled at Kirkland is her husband of more than 20 years, Peter Stone '74, a urologist in the Bronx and Westchester. When the "power couple" aspect of their partnership is noted, Forte immediately credits their shared status as "classic middle children" of same-sex siblings for instilling their drive and ambition. The couple has two sons, Christopher, a sophomore at Hamilton, and Carter, a high school junior at New York's Collegiate.
After graduation, while Forte had no strong ideas about specific jobs she wanted, she was determined about one thing: she needed to live in a city. "So I came to New York, and my parents gave me three weeks to find a job," Forte recalled. "Ironically, my first job offer was at CBS, and I said, ?Oh no, I would much rather be at a publishing company than do television.' Of course, what did I end up doing?"
She landed a position at Viking Press, where at that time young staffers rotated through different departments, sampling each aspect of the book business, including "doing exciting things like Xeroxing and making telephone calls." But the exposure to the various elements of publishing gave her an essential foundation in both the creative and business aspects of media, which would inform the rest of her career.
Forte ended up in Viking's sales and marketing department. She eventually started a new division, known as the special markets group, which at the time was a nascent concept in the publishing world. Under Forte, the company created strategic partnerships with other business outlets in order to expand the distribution of books beyond traditional bookstores, in part to reach specific audiences. One such partnership was with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which sold and developed art books with Viking.
In 1984, Scholastic recruited Forte to start new businesses for the company. Early on in her tenure, she had excellent instincts. In the '80s, she steered the company into video, which she described as, at the time, "going from a recording device and time-shifting machine to its own sort of medium."
But Forte's mission is not, and has never been, to provide pure entertainment. Without being sanctimonious, she says that the mission of her division is to "provide media experiences for kids that have a value beyond just interacting with the media, that have a value when they're watching television and when they're not." Thus, all of Scholastic Media's products, including Clifford, the highly successful Magic School Bus series and the new Maya and Miguel, have an educational essence that's cleverly incorporated into the content without being didactic or preachy.
Maya and Miguel is groundbreaking in that it's the first animated television series centered around a Hispanic family. "It was so much fun for me to do because I always wanted to do an animated sitcom with a brother and sister. And I wanted the relationship to be a little bit like the comedy of Lucille Ball," Forte said. The brother-sister duo is accompanied by a diverse group of friends, including a Chinese-American girl named Maggie and a recent Mexican immigrant named Tito. Maya and Miguel's pet is a parrot named Paco.
The show's concept attracted support early on; the Corporation for Public Broadcasting provided the project with a $14 million grant. Like so many of its peers in the modern media age, Maya and Miguel will be a franchise that extends beyond the show; there will be merchandise and published materials. In the first week the Maya and Miguel Web site -- which is available in English and Spanish -- went live, it got four million page views. In its first month, the site drew 17 million page views, making it one of Scholastic Media's most successful launches ever.
Like many of Scholastic's media enterprises, the curriculum for Maya and Miguel was developed in consultation with a team of experts to hone the details, including the lives of people in a diverse community.
Likewise, the Magic School Bus series, which features a fun, eccentric teacher who takes kids into the thick of science -- volcanoes, the human body, etc. -- was conceived with the goal of keeping girls and minorities engaged in science at an age when interest dissipates, and also to make science learning for all kids as exciting as possible.
It's the extra steps, the back-end research and consultations with educators, language specialists and diversity experts that distinguish the kind of content Scholastic creates from the pure entertainment genre of kids' media. "Those steps are not taken when you're doing commercial television," Forte said. "[The research] is much more time-consuming and expensive, but the value of what you're creating is enhanced by that." But Forte doesn't diminish other kinds of television, adding that "there's nothing holy in children's entertainment."
Like most successful executives and working mothers, she is steadfastly organized. Forte rises at 6:30 a.m., reads all the trade publications for her business, checks her e-mail (which she has no time to do during her work days, which are consumed by meetings) and makes business calls to Europe. She travels a lot, but flies commercial. ("We're a very cost-conscious public company.")
To understand Forte's personal and professional modus operandi is to know how she went about learning the job of a producer. Some two decades ago when she thought Scholastic should enter the video market, the company had already made a major investment in software and wasn't prepared to expend resources on video.
But Forte's boss told her that if she could find the funding, she could proceed. She flew out to California to pitch people she thought would never agree to her idea. To her surprise, they quickly signed on to finance and distribute videos that Scholastic would produce from its content. When she was told she could produce the videos, Forte said to herself, "Now I have to figure out how." One of her greatest assets, she feels, is her fearlessness in learning as she goes along.
"If other people were to characterize me, I think they would say that I have the ability to have a vision for something and whether it's been done before or not, figure out the pieces to put it together to do it," Forte said.
While she takes pride in her success, she operates with significant challenges. Right now, Forte said, they are "trying to produce quality media in a business environment that's very tough, and doing it for a public company where the financial aspects of the business are very critical. It's always about balancing business goals with the content goals. But that's like life."
Heather Won Tesoriero '96 is a health reporter for The Wall Street Journal.