Sandra Sheppard '84

Making Good TV for Kids
January 31, 2005
Sandra Sheppard '84

With a dual major in economics and fine arts, Sandra Sheppard ventured into the working world in 1984 as a production intern at Manhattan's flagship public television station, Thirteen/WNET New York. She had no television experience, but she had a knack for numbers, a love for the arts, and a hankering to make it in her hometown.

Twenty years later, she's still at Thirteen as one of its top production executives--director of children's and educational programming.

In 2003, she was executive producer of the sixteen-part PBS documentary, Freedom: A History of US, which told America's story through the eyes of patriots, slaves, women, and laborers who struggled for their share of the American dream.

Sheppard is also one of two executive producers of Cyberchase, the PBS children's show aired on more than 350 stations that infuses math concepts into a humorous adventure cartoon.

Sheppard was on the planning team that conceived the show in 2000 and brought it into production two years later. Now in its third year, Cyberchase is one of television's only shows to teach math literacy. The half-hour program, targeted at third-graders, features a "Cyber Squad" comprising three children and a wisecracking bird that takes on the dastardly villain, Hacker.

In an episode that was set to premiere in October, the Cyber Squad mobilizes to beat Hacker's auction bid for a prized encryptor chip. The kids get jobs and figure out how much they'll have to save per day to outbid Hacker. The episode teaches money-management skills as well as math concepts. "We wanted the kids to defeat the villain by using their brains," says Sheppard, who lives in Manhattan with her husband, Bob Morris, and children, Tyler, ten, and Nicola, six. "We wanted to show that math was part of their everyday lives, and that minds could win over muscle."

As executive producer, Sheppard oversees all aspects of the show. She secures financial deals with corporate sponsors and helps recruit actors to provide the voices for the cartoon characters. She works with the creative team that this year came up with twelve new shows, taking math concepts such as percentages and the area of a triangle and weaving them into a compelling narrative that will keep kids' attention.

In today's media world, a PBS show finds an audience beyond the television screen. Sheppard works with a group of writers who publish a Cyberchase magazine and Web designers who have created a cutting-edge website for kids at PBSKids.org.

The Cyberchase website has games tied to the cartoon episodes that change daily to correspond to the shows running that day on PBS. When five new shows were aired in early May, the website had 8 million page views in a single week.

Sheppard has earned a reputation in the industry for knowing how to reach children, says Linda Simensky, senior director of children's programming for PBS. "She understands kids, she understands education, and she understands the art of making good television."

Sheppard's latest project is a cartoon series, with the working title Artopia, that targets five- to eight-year-olds. It celebrates creativity with a mix of animation styles, taking viewers on adventures that encourage kids to make, look at, and talk about art. At the end of each episode, viewers learn about a project they can work on at home.

The series, still at least a year from production, would help fill a void in the crowded television landscape, she says.

"When you look at kids' TV, there are loads of choices, but few really good options. We need more shows that mix entertainment and education that really work for kids.