It may be that the toughest critics of Nickelodeon's "Dora the Explorer" are its preschool-age viewers. Series creators/executive producers Chris Gifford and Valerie Walsh Valdes arrived for a phone interview about the show's 10th anniversary fresh from a session with preschoolers who were not transfixed by a "Dora" episode in development.
"They can be brutal," Gifford said. "If they're not liking something, they'll go play with Mr. Potato Head. When you watch them watching your story and you see kids so excited by it they can't turn away, it's inspiring. And it's motivating (when they pay less attention) to get that story in shape."
The "Dora" creators said they test episodes at several stages. This particular episode, the first in a trilogy slated to air in about a year, tested well in storybook form. But at the animatic stage, rough, incomplete animation, it needs some massaging.
"It did really well when we showed (the storybook version) to 30 preschoolers to get their feedback and make sure it's a story they can understand," Walsh Valdes said. "And then in the translation something happened and it became more complicated and much more difficult for the little kids to follow."
It's not an unusual situation for these purveyors of children's television. Gifford said it often happens that an episode will test terribly in the animatic stage and then the completed, fully animated episode tests "through the roof."
"Dora" celebrated 10 years on the air with "Dora's Big Birthday Adventure," a one-hour special that aired Sunday and will be shown again at 9 a.m. today, 8 a.m. Tuesday through Friday and 7 a.m. Saturday. In the episode, Dora revisits friends from the past who help her get home for a birthday party.
Although "Dora" premiered in August 2000, work on the series began in 1997 when Nick Jr. employees Gifford and Walsh Valdes were paired and given a homework assignment to create a new children's program.
"Dora" was not their initial pitch. Their first notion was a live-action series, but over six months ideas evolved. After a Nick executive attended a conference and came away with the understanding that there was a lack of Hispanic role models in children's television, the concept of the series changed again.
"None of us are Latino, so that's a pretty big challenge for us," Walsh Valdes recalled. "But it made sense to us that this would be a great time to introduce a character who is bilingual. The Latino population was exploding and, in terms of culture, new Latin music was being embraced by the mainstream, and the fact that there's a dearth of positive Latino characters on TV.
"We had learned from years of being in children's television that kids don't have set in their minds that a girl character can't be the hero, or you can't have a person of color be the hero. Kids don't come with prejudice. They're very open-minded."
The team hired bilingual writers and consultants, some of whom still work on the series. The "Dora" team is now crafting stories for episodes that won't air until 2013.
In addition to creating an empowered minority character, "Dora" also broke ground with the way it encourages interactivity with its preschool viewers. When she goes on adventures, Dora asks children watching at home for their help. And then she waits for their response. That wait can seem interminable to adult TV executives.
"When we first delivered the show, a lot of people said, 'Are you sure she really has to wait that long?' " Gifford recalled.
"Everyone was squirming in their seats," Walsh Valdes added.
"We had a seven-second gap where she just stared at the camera and blinked and waited," Gifford said. "A lot of people felt we were nuts."
But the long delay was by design.
"Plenty of characters had spoken to kids in the past, going back to Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers," Gifford noted, "but waiting for the answer to a question is something you hadn't seen as much."
"If you watch little kids, it's how they talk to their moms and dads," Walsh Valdes said. "They need that time to process."