Thursday, June 26, 2008

Home Improvement Horrors - Part One

Mention home-improvement contractors, and most homeowners roll their eyes and groan. Not everyone who’s lived through a home remodeling project reacts that way, of course. Some just chuckle sadly, shaking their heads with weary resign. Others run screaming from the room, ripping at their hair.

Maybe they’ve had an experience like the White Plains, NY, homeowner whose upstairs bathroom remodeler flooded the living room. Oops! Or the Scarsdale, NY, couple whose painters polished off pretty much everything in their liquor cabinets—-including a bottle of Perrier-Jouet—-and very kindly hid the empties in the heating ducts around the house. Heh, heh, heh. Or the Hartsdale, NY, woman who had to eat $1,000 worth of one-of-a-kind designer tiles because her contractor mismeasured a bathtub frame. “You should have measured yourself before you ordered the tiles,” was his response. Huh?

Even homeowners who don’t have horror stories readily admit that these projects are invariably an adventure. The White Plains homeowner with the swimming pool in her living room, took it all in stride. “That wasn’t fun,” she says. “On the other hand, it wasn’t the contractor’s fault. The house was built in 1923; and when you start messing with pipes that old, things happen.”

She and her husband are serial home improvers, having remodeled four bathrooms, the kitchen, the family room, and the entire third floor of their home in the 14 years they’ve lived there. “Nothing has gone perfectly,” she observes with Zen-like equanimity. “You just have to assume that the unexpected happens and that you will go over budget.”

Another woman, who spent three months renovating her family’s home in Katonah, NY, tells about the carpenter who sent them a bill a year after the job was completed. “He just forgot, but it was a punch in the gut,” she says.

Still, it’s hard to be calm when you turn over the house keys to a gang of muscular strangers with implements of destruction hanging from their belts. Beefy guys who are going to occupy your family’s private space for months, do violent things that you don’t understand to the most valuable asset you own, and then collect a huge check when the job is done—if it ever is. Home improvement is a trip when you’re watching it on HGTV, but can be a terrifying journey when the makeover is happening under your own roof.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Muppets Changing the World - Part 3

Sesame Street is on a global mission led by CEO Gary Knell. The program has always had some international distribution (a Mexican version, Plaza S├ęsamo premiered in 1972), but Knell has spread those shaggy puppet teachers into more than 120 countries and sees more on the horizon. “There are 150 million pre-school kids in India. It would be the fourth largest country in the world—made up entirely of five year olds,” he says, savoring the prospects. The opportunity is huge, but the mission is serious, according to Knell. “We take our model using research, content, and plot lines that deal with literacy, girls education, tolerance and respect, HIV/AIDS, global health and other issues.”

Knell is an inveterate globe-trotter himself, constantly on the move setting up partnerships with educators and production companies around the world. He got a good grounding for that early in his career, when he served as Managing Director of Manager Media International, a print and multimedia business based in Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Of course, his conversations today are with a different group of movers and shakers than the advertisers in Asia Times. When I visited his office recently, I noticed a framed handwritten note from Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Fein and spokesman for the Provisional Irish Republican Army. It says “PS: Thanks for the Cookie Monster!” The Workshop is working right now in another hotspot, Kosovo.

Sesame Street reaches about 8 million kids a week on TV in the U.S. and 70 million kids around the globe, according to Knell. “But there are 700,000,000 kids under 9 around the world with access to TV, so we’ve still got plenty of room to grow.”

It all melds together to make Sesame Street a significant influence on children everywhere. As founder Joan Ganz Cooney points out, “The domestic show is affected by work we’re doing abroad, just as the American versions affect the international versions. Sesame Street wants to make children aware of the world they live in, that it is bigger than where they live in the U.S.” Watch Sesame Street these days and you’re as likely to see Elmo wearing an Egyptian galabya and drinking mint tea as chomping on chocolate chip wafers with his blue googley-eyed friend, Cookie Monster.

Knell isn’t afraid to encourage his staff to take on unpleasant current issues, either, especially when they affect the lives of children. He’s very proud of the 400,000 Sesame Street DVD’s he got Wal-Mart to pay for to help families of U.S. soldiers serving overseas. The program helps them deal with issues of deployment, re-deployment, and homecoming, sometimes by fathers in wheelchairs.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

Friday, June 6, 2008

Fun at Purchase Free Library 80th Anniversary Party

I had great fun at the 80th Anniversary Celebration of the Purchase Free Library, one of the wonderful public libraries I represent on the Board of Trustees of the Westchester (NY) Library System. I'm pictured here enjoying a story told by Jean Read, the first Purchase Board President, elected when the library became an independent entity from the Purchase Community House in 1967.

After Harrison Mayor Joan Walsh and Purchase Board President Martha Greenburg spoke, I said a few words on behalf of WLS.

When Head Librarian Anne Collins told the group I am a writer as well as a library system trustee, there was great interest in Heart of Diamonds.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Muppets Changing the World - Part 2

Gary Knell took over as CEO of Sesame Workshop not long after the organization’s founder, Joan Ganz Cooney, recruited him from WNET/Channel 13, where he was General Counsel. She attributes much of Sesame Workshop’s ability to compete to Knell’s idealism and enthusiasm. “He is high, high energy,” she told me, adding, “He is the best leader we’ve ever had, and that includes me.”

“One of the things he did that was astonishingly wonderful was putting together the partners for Sprout, the cable channel that is all pre-school all the time,” Cooney says. “He put together the partners, which include HiT Entertainment in London, PBS, and Comcast, who put up most of the money. We didn’t put up money, but, thanks to Gary’s skill, we ended up as part owners of the channel.” Knell also sold Noggin, which was a cable channel the Workshop started in partnership with Nickelodeon, to raise the money to buy the Muppets when they came on the market.

While Knell has been pushing the Workshop into new media, he hasn’t ignored the original mission of Sesame Street, which was to reach and teach preschoolers, particularly in disadvantaged homes. “We take this really seriously,” he says. “We’re the only show that has consistently looked at child development issues and applied those to media in a regularized way.” According to their annual report, the organization spent almost $9.5 million on research in 2007. Most of it, he explains, “is scientific educational research where we test segments with kids to make sure they’re pulling the lessons that are intended from the content.”

“For example, we did a segment a few years ago where Snuffie’s parents got divorced. Kids in tests thought their parents were going to get divorced every time they had an argument, so we never aired the segment.”

Dr. Mary Ann Reilly, an Associate Professor who teaches courses in K-12 literacy at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY, points out that this is vastly different from the type of research done for commercial programs: “If you want to know what kind of sugared cereal you should eat, you can watch the Disney Channel. If you want to be a little bit more enlightened, you look at Sesame Street.”

Over 4,000 hours of Sesame Street have been created. The Workshop still produces 26 new shows every year so it stays perpetually current with issues of the day like childhood obesity and environmental concerns. But the program has been on the air nearly 40 years (the first episode aired November 10, 1969) and it’s still peopled by a singing green frog, brought to you by the Letter G and the Number 3, and takes place on a city street where graffiti apparently magically disappears. Is it relevant to kids today?

“Of course it’s relevant,” says Dr. Reilly. “Without question, there are far more choices for parents in terms of television watching. When I see some of the things on the channels dedicated to children, though, it’s truly alarming. From the Navy Seal ads to really questionable violence and things of that sort. A show that has movement, fantasy, fun, lots of language going on, notions of a neighborhood that’s integrated, that’s extremely relevant.”

Remember, too, while you may have seen all 4,000 episodes, your three-year-old hasn’t. Bert and Ernie are new neighbors to them.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds