But will today's overstimulated preschooler find a springy dog and her human sidekick a little basic in a noisier digital age?
Two decades ago, Blue's Clues stormed children's television with something colourless, low-tech and ordinary: silence.
Last winter, on the Toronto set of Blue's Clues & You! — a reboot premiering November 11 on Nickelodeon — silence was still the star, even though the host was new and (relatively) loud. Joshua Dela Cruz, 30, bounced around an empty stage in a striped shirt (blue, not the original host's signature green), strumming his handy dandy guitar. His co-star was a dot made by a laser pointer, a stand-in for his "best friend," Blue, the waggy puppy who would be added later by animators, with a subtle 3-D revamp to increase her cuddle factor.
Dela Cruz sang about how smart and hardworking you, the imagined viewer, are, then leaned close to the camera to ask a question: "What's your superpower?" Then came the silence: one, two, three, four beats long, an eon in TV time. Finally, Dela Cruz's pie-eyed face lit up as if you'd responded brilliantly, and he gushed, "Great job!"
Blue's Clues, which debuted in 1996 and ran for six seasons, followed by a spinoff called Blue's Room, was the first children's cable show built entirely around direct address, inviting preschoolers to play along with games and solve mini-mysteries (like "What snack does Blue want?"). The show was interactive before interactivity became mundane; those built-in silences left open for child participation.
Now it's back, riding the twin entertainment trends of 1990s nostalgia and the resuscitation of corporate intellectual property, joining a fleet of children's shows born of a backward glance. Elsewhere at Nickelodeon, All That and Rugrats are getting their own remakes and SpongeBob SquarePants is getting a spinoff, Kamp Koral — while Carmen Sandiego has returned on Netflix, and Animaniacs has been revived by Hulu.
With anxieties about an uncertain world percolating among adults, fleeing to the familiar is a retreat to safety. So why not take the kids, too? "People want that comfy blanket feeling of the good old days," said Traci Paige Johnson, one of the show's creators.
For broadcasters like Nickelodeon — confronted with cord-cutting and depleted, fragmented viewership — the vaults of old shows look like a lifeline, a direct path to an intergenerational audience. A potentially lucrative one, too: The original "Blue's Clues" was the first billion-dollar consumer brand for Viacom, its parent company.
But even then, Blue's Clues was something of a throwback: a leisurely paced, unflashy show with the educational bona fides of its public TV predecessors Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street. An unlikely smash for a cable network, it paved the way for more learning-centric programs like Dora the Explorer. But the new Blue enters a much-altered viewing landscape where attention is diverted not just to streaming services but to social media (#kidstagram) and the algorithms of the YouTube Kids app.
The other challenge is the show's totemic status to a generation that feels ownership over Magenta, the Thinking Chair, Mrs. Pepper and the other inhabitants of Blue's storybook world. Don't panic — they'll all be back, plus a few new citizens.
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Still, Vince Commisso, president and chief executive of 9 Story Media Group, the production company behind the new show along with the animation studio Brown Bag Films, understands the risks. "Blue has the legacy and brand equity, but there's a lot of pressure, because you can only screw it up," he said, laughing.
Johnson and Angela Santomero, another creator, are determined not to let that happen. (A third creator, Todd Kessler, left Blue's Clues in 2000.) Now in their 50s, the pair met at Nickelodeon in their early 20s when Santomero was using her master's degree in child developmental psychology in the research department and Johnson was working as a freelance producer and animator. "We wanted to do something very simple and graphic and slow," Santomero recalled. "Something where preschoolers were treated like they were smart, and felt empowered, emphasising those social emotional skills. We were thinking of my hero — "
"Mr. Rogers!" Johnson broke in, finishing the sentence, which they tend to do for one another.
"We were young, and Nickelodeon took a chance on us," Santomero said. "They were busy with other things, like working on Dr. Seuss. They left us alone in a little room to come up with something."
Most children's TV at the time was built around male characters, but Blue would be a girl in the "boy" colour of blue. She would never wear a bow. Using Johnson's cutout animation style, her cartoon world would be clean and tactile, like a layered felt board, with lots of empty space. And while the storytelling would bolster kindergarten-readiness skills (at a time when the intensive parenting ethos was taking hold), it would also be silly — a half-hour with a single story line that would push children to actively listen.
In the mid-1990s, however, relaxed Federal Communications Commission regulations about educational content in children's TV had made room for a different type of programming; it was a time when Mighty Morphin Power Rangers dominated. "Parents were afraid. Ren & Stimpy was on right before preschool shows," Johnson said. "It was very hard to promote something that was soft and gentle."
Yet, within months, Blue's Clues was beating both Sesame Street and Barney in the ratings. There were reams of merchandise, a straight-to-video movie featuring Ray Charles, a Macy's balloon — as well as a Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting.
The show's success demonstrated that educational research combined with advocacy could be profitable, said Alison Bryant, the author of The Children's Television Community. "The fact that all TV shows today have educational curriculum consultants is definitely because of Blue's Clues," she said.
In 2004, the show was canceled, an event Santomero described as devastating, although the creators moved on. Fred Rogers' estate approached Santomero to create a new series, which became Daniel Tiger's Neighbourhood, on PBS. Johnson joined her, but while they've worked together on other projects — including Creative Galaxy and Super Why! — every few years they would return to Nickelodeon to sniff out the possibility of bringing Blue back.
In 2017, they got the go-ahead to develop a reboot from Sarah Landy, a development executive at Nickelodeon Preschool, who just happened to be a former assistant on Blue's Clues. Not long after came an order for 20 episodes.
But will today's overstimulated 2- to 5-year-olds find a springy dog and her human sidekick a little basic? "Kids have more access to technology. They're more visual. But from a child development perspective, emotionally, they're the same. If anything, they need to slow down and take a step at a time more than ever," said Santomero, quoting the show's theme song.
Creators of the new Blue's Clues acknowledge the realities of children's lives today with small tweaks, like updating the handy dandy notebook to include a phone. At mail time, an email arrives. But the most notable change is the host.
An open casting call led to about 1,000 hopefuls showing up in Los Angeles, many dressed like the original host, Steve Burns. After setting anchor in a generation's collective imagination with his guileless persona and pleated khakis, Burns left in 2000 (his character went to college), to be replaced by Donovan Patton as "Joe". "I had given all of the smiley energy I had," Burns said. "I was truly pretty exhausted."
But his tentative forays into social media revealed fans' fierce devotion to Blue's Clues, which helped persuade Burns to take ownership of his legacy. He is writing and directing on Blue's Clues and You! and making guest appearances. He also weighed in on the new host, casting a vote for Dela Cruz.
Dela Cruz had been understudying Aladdin on Broadway for five years when his agent mentioned an audition for the new Blue's Clues. Growing up in New Jersey, he used to watch the show with his superfan little sister and walked around belting, "Mail time!"
Any working actor might be drawn to the steady paycheck of a Nickelodeon gig, but Dela Cruz, who is Filipino American, was also eager to break barriers as the show's first Asian American host. "Growing up, I never saw anybody like me on TV," he said. "Especially somebody who was Asian that didn't have an accent, who didn't have value because they could fight."
There's a good chance that a year from now, Dela Cruz will be a preschool idol around the world: a stripy, human Elmo. Viacom recently announced the first licensee partners for plush toys, play sets and digital games. While the reboot machinery churned, Dela Cruz was trying to focus on the imaginary scene partner on the opposite side of the lens. Burns offered him a key piece of advice: "Lean into the silence. It's your friend."
Written by: Katrina Onstad
Photographs by: Bobby Doherty
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES