I met Michelle Chen at the Harvard Asian American Alumni Association (H4A) recent three day conference. We are both mentoring young women at Harvard and I was thrilled to learn that she works in children’s public television, having watched countless hours of PBS kids with my children when they were young. I wanted to learn more, so she kindly agreed to be interviewed!
You can see from her interview how role models have guided her career. I’m not surprised that she is mentoring a student!
Question 1: What do you do at WNET?
I’m a producer with the Kids’ Media and Education team here at WNET, New York’s flagship public media company. I’m involved in the development and production of a range of educational video and interactive projects for kids and youth, including our award-winning history gaming series, Mission US; our long-running PBS KIDS math adventure series, Cyberchase,; Oh Noah!, our PBS KIDS digital video and gaming series that introduces kids to Spanish; and new projects in development. I’m also involved in projects for educators and parents. One of our newest is Parenting Minutes – a digital series that provides parents with helpful tips and information about early childhood development, health, education, and raising kids.
Question 2: How long have you been at WNET?
I’ve been with WNET for almost 15 years.
Question 3: How did you come to work at WNET?
My path to WNET was a bit circuitous. I was a biology major in college, originally interested in pursuing a career in ecology research. But I became involved in producing theater in my freshman year and realized how much I loved being a producer. Later that year, an Asian American producer from a big Hollywood studio gave a speech at a conference on campus. Hearing him speak was an “aha” moment for me. I had never thought of producing as a serious career option previously, but here was a concrete example of a successful Asian American producer! Inspired, I got more involved in producing theater on campus, began taking classes in animation, and started doing internships at indie film, documentary, and animation companies.
By the time I graduated I was committed to pursuing a career in production. Finding an actual paying job in production, however, was not so easy. After a series of more internships and unpaid (or very low-paying) indie film gigs, I wound up getting a full-time job in fundraising at The Public Theater and later the Museum of Chinese in America. While working my “day jobs,” I continued to pursue my producing ambitions by starting a production company with two friends, making low-budget short films and putting on off-off-Broadway plays. It wasn’t until several years later that I applied to work as a production coordinator at WNET. I’d always wanted to work at WNET, and although I had never thought specifically about kids’ media, the role was strangely enough a great fit for me – combining my varied backgrounds in science and math (which was helpful on Cyberchase and other projects), non-profit fundraising, animation, and low-budget video production. I feel so fortunate to have landed the gig and to have continued to grow in my role with the kids’ media team here.
Question 4: How do new shows get developed at WNET (the fast version)?
Of course, every project is different. New projects might arise out of concepts developed by producers on our team, or from pitches we receive from outside writers or production companies interested in collaborating with us. Sometimes they might be completely original concepts; sometimes they’re based on existing properties we might option. Often they’re developed in response to a need or opportunity. Typically, once we have a concept that we think has promise, we will bring in a writer and educational advisors to help us develop it further into a pitch document that we can use to seek funding and/or production or distribution partners. If and when we’re fortunate to raise funding, we will often produce a pilot or prototype to test the concept with kids and make sure we’re meeting our goals in terms of appeal, age appropriateness, and educational impact.
Question 5: What do you look for in developing a show at WNET?
Our mission as the Kids’ Media and Education team at WNET is to expand minds, ignite curiosity, and help kids become confident and caring people. We create video and interactive projects for multiple platforms, infusing fun with a range of curriculum-based content for kids from preschool through high school. When developing a new project, our goal is to introduce and reinforce educational content through unique, engaging, aspirational characters and funny, relatable stories. We are very interested in working with diverse talent and presenting voices and experiences that reflect the range of backgrounds and cultures of children across the country – including underresourced populations and children with learning challenges. We also look for innovation, age-appropriateness for the target audience, content that fills a gap in the current educational media landscape, and experiences that thoughtfully explore narrative and educational content across multiple platforms.
Michelle Chen has worked with THIRTEEN/WNET’s Children’s and Educational Media unit since 2004, creating content for public television and digital platforms. She received Emmy awards for her work as a producer on the PBS Kids series Cyberchase (recipient of the first Emmy for children’s broadband programming) and the multiplatform project, Get the Math. She serves as producer on the groundbreaking, CPB and NEH-funded American history videogame, Mission US, which received the Japan Prize for Educational Media and the Games for Change Award for Most Significant Impact. She is also producer on the PBS KIDS digital video/gaming series Oh Noah! and works on the development of new educational children’s media projects. In addition, she has served as a producer on professional development documentary series for educators, including the Annenberg-funded The Power of Music: P-5 Teaching Inspired by El Sistema.
Here are a few great shows that WNET has produced:
Cyberchase, our long-running PBS KIDS math adventure series and multiplatform project; most recently focused on math and the environment, and accessibility in gaming.
Mission US, our series of educational role-playing games designed to immerse middle schoolers in American history — we’re in production on a new game on the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans.
Films BYkids, a series of global documentaries that pair master filmmakers with teens around the world to tell their personal stories — we have a new season premiering in February.
Oh Noah!, our PBS KIDS digital series that introduces young kids to Spanish language.
BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.
1 thought on “How PBS Shows Get Made and Michelle Chen’s Journey to WNET”
Oh wow, thanks for this interview! Michelle Chen sounds amazing, and I really appreciate her sharing her journey to getting where she is today.