#28. A Conversation with Linda Simensky

Jason Anders: Let's start with where you began your career, a nine-year tenure at Nickelodeon, where you helped build the studio's animation department, and have also been credited for launching Doug and Rugrats; tell me how you became involved with Nickelodeon, and also what it was like to be involved in the original Nicktoons.

Linda Simensky: My goal had been to work in kids' television and animation. I lived in the New York area, and had a summer job at Nickelodeon in 1984. I was eager to go back there after I graduated. It was a fun place to work and I liked the shows there much more than I liked Saturday morning cartoons. Nick was pretty small back then, so I didn't get a job there right away. I worked at Showtime for a year in programming, and then was able to get a job in the Nickelodeon programming department, where I handled the scheduling for Nickelodeon, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., to be exact.

Nickelodeon in the '80s was an amazing place to work. A list of my colleagues at the time reads like a who's who in kids TV now. We had a lot of freedom and were expected to be creative, even with things like the schedule. My interest had always been animation, and I guess I talked about it all the time. I was asked if I wanted to be in the animation department that was starting up, and of course I did. It was a great time, and we experimented quite a bit. When I was in the midst of it, all I could think of was how exciting it was and what a great opportunity it was to do some really interesting shows and impact the animation industry in a positive way.
Of course, when I look back now with 20 years of hindsight, I think about how little we really knew about how to make shows, but how much passion and excitement we brought to our jobs. I guess we were lucky that things turned out as well as they did. We worked with a lot of talented people, many who did have experience. I think everyone knew what an amazing opportunity it was to have that much freedom, and people worked hard to make sure things worked out.

JA: You were also supervising producer on Rocko's Modern Life; tell me about your time on that show before being appointed Director of Programming of Cartoon Network.

LS: My job at Nickelodeon was overseeing animation development. Rocko, which was created by Joe Murray, was one of the shows I had developed, and the head of the department at the time, Mary Harrington, wanted me to get some production experience, which was a very wise idea. I did understand development much better after working more hands on with a series. So on Rocko, I was the supervising producer for the network, which meant that I was reading scripts and boards and giving comments. It was a team effort, so I was really more part of a strong group of people reviewing the series at Nick.

Rocko was an interesting show, in that it brought together a lot of people who got to experiment and then went off to make their own shows; Steve Hillenburg, Dan Povenmire and Swampy Marsh, Tim Bjorklund, to name a few. Rocko was made in the shadow of Ren and Stimpy, so all the artists felt this pressure to push the envelope constantly, which always seemed like the wrong direction for Rocko, which I always felt was much more of a Looney Tunes meets the NFB kind of show, not a Ren and Stimpy kind of show. Once everyone had gotten that out of their systems, they could move on. I have often felt that there would not have been a Spongebob had there not been a Rocko. Steve can tell me if that's not the case.

By the mid-1990s, what I really wanted to focus on was funny cartoons, and I was excited by cartoons like Dexter's Laboratory at Cartoon Network. The cartoons were made with the outline-to-board production process, and I was interested in working that way, as I thought it made for funnier cartoons. I was intrigued by the potential that I felt Cartoon Network had at the time (early/mid-90s) and when I met Mike Lazzo, I knew that I wanted to work there.

JA: In 1997 you were promoted to Vice President of Original Animation, and then became Senior Vice President of Original Animation in 2001; what was your time like at Cartoon Network, overseeing such shows as Dexter's Laboratory and Samurai Jack?

LS: I recall 1996-2000 as a perfect period in many ways, everything seemed right, the people, the shows, the management. Cartoon Network was an amazing place to work at that time. The leadership at Turner was supportive and not risk-averse. The network was still adding cable systems, so ratings were related mostly to this rapid growth. There was pressure to make good shows, for sure. But Dexter and Johnny Bravo paved the way and a lot of what got developed for series during that time -- Powerpuff Girls, Ed, Edd 'n' Eddy, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Samurai Jack, seemed to work. That of course was because of the creators. Genndy Tartakvosky, Craig McCracken, and Danny Antonucci and their teams all could have worked anywhere at that time and they stayed at CN, because it was a supportive environment and they knew they were valued at the network. So they worked really hard and that showed on the screen.
There were challenges then, such as how to work with Warner Bros. and the WB, and with the international Cartoon Networks, who all seemed to have different needs and goals. Our biggest challenge was running the shows, which were mostly in LA, but also in NY and Vancouver, from our offices in Atlanta. I pushed for a studio in LA where we could oversee our own shows and could produce the shorts more easily, and by 2000, we had pulled together the studio in Burbank. Besides the shows, the creation of the Cartoon Network Studio is one of the things I am proudest of.

When AOL took over in 2001 and installed new management, it was a completely different environment, and you can imagine the enthusiasm and energy they brought to Cartoon Network. Just kidding, it was horrible after that and I got out. I should note that there are still good people in management there, and Rob Sorcher is running things now, so all is not lost.

JA: You studied Media Ecology at New York University where you earned your MA; tell me about life before your career, did you always want to be involved in the entertainment industry?

LS: Life and career happened at the same time. After I finished college, I started grad school at NYU right around the time I started working at Nick. I went to school at night, which was the only way I could work full time and still get my MA. As an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, I had heard Neil Postman speak, and I was captivated. I had decided that no matter where I ended up working, I would go to grad school at NYU for Neil's program, which was called Media Ecology, based on the Marshall McLuhan term. Media Ecology was a program that focused on the impact of each communications medium throughout history, and it looked at the positive impact as well as the unintended consequences of each advancement. Such as how the invention of the printing press impacted the concept of memory. It certainly influenced the way I approach problem solving at work. Somehow I was able to write a lot of papers on animation and made it all job-related.

As for my career, yes, I had announced at age thirteen that I wanted to write for Bugs Bunny. Upon finding out that it was no longer in production, I decided that I still wanted to work in television programming. I was always interested in animation, but I had assumed that one had to be trained as an animator to work in animation.

JA: In 2003 you were named Senior Director of Children's Programming for PBS, where you manage programming blocks, work with producers, co-production partners and distributors throughout development, production, post-production and broadcast; tell me about the challenges you face in this career, and what you find most rewarding about it.

LS: When I went to PBS, I think it surprised a lot of people. Perhaps that was because I had never shown any interest in educational television in all my years at Nick and CN. But two things were happening in my life at the point where I left CN. One was that my son had turned two and was watching TV, and I started understanding how it all influenced him. I started thinking about the kinds of shows that I wanted him to watch; educational shows that were really funny and cool, kind of like the way I remembered the Electric Company being. The other was that my frustrations at CN led to a midlife crisis, which sounds like a cliché, but I really did start to question what I was doing and if it was meaningful. Rather than buying a red sports car, I dragged my family to Alexandria, Virginia, so I could take a job where I felt that I could have impact.
I was warned by various colleagues that PBS was very political, in all senses, that they were very strict about what went on the air, and that it was hard to get anything done there. But I have found it exactly the opposite; there is a definite premium on innovation, management is astoundingly supportive, and the people I work with are team players who can also go off on their own to solve problems or come up with ideas. Of course, there is not the same kind of money you might find at a cable channel, but I happen to like the creative approach we're allowed to take here. It's one that is mission-based, meaning that we do have an overall goal that we need to stick to, serving the American public, and in my case, kids 2-8. But to be honest, it's more fun being creative when you have specific goals.

I've also been able to work with some of the people I'd admired most in kids TV, people like Carol Greenwald, Lisa Henson, Angela Santomero, Mitchell Kriegman, Karen Fowler, and the other producers at Sesame Workshop, Soup 2 Nuts, WGBH, to name a few.

JA: Do you remember your favorite television programs as a child?

LS: I was a huge fan of Bugs Bunny and all Looney Tunes, The Flintstones and the Electric Company. I also recall liking The Pink Panther and The Jetsons. I watched Saturday morning TV with great enthusiasm. I remember liking reruns of The Mickey Mouse Club. As for live action, I liked the Brady Bunch in early elementary school and then as I got older, I liked The Odd Couple and The Carol Burnett Show. And then The Muppet Show and Saturday Night Live came along, and those completely shaped my sense of humor.

JA: What advice do you feel is important for those out there trying to break into the industry as working professionals?

LS: I find that frequently, people want to break into the industry as the creator of a series. I think it's crucial for would-be creators to get experience in both leadership and creative management and to see how other people run series. I often tell people, particularly those who want to work on the network side of kids TV, to see their first jobs as paid grad school. You have to use those first few jobs to learn as much as possible to become truly valuable to an organization. Animation requires both the ability to have leadership and vision, but also to be part of a team and to value the work of others. It takes a certain amount of experience and maturity to get to that point.

JA: In 2000 you were honored with the June Foray Award, which is given to individuals who have made a significant and benevolent or charitable impact on the art and industry of animation, such as Leonard Maltin, Dave Master, and Jerry Beck; tell me how it felt to be presented with that award, and what series or programming have you been most proud to say you were involved in?

LS: It was a huge honor, especially since I did get to meet June Foray, and I was very surprised and excited. I was surprised that I had done enough to be noticed along with people like Jerry Beck and Leonard Maltin. But the part of the award's description I took very seriously was "benevolent impact." As an executive, my goal was always to represent the needs of the network, but always be there for the artists. I had worked hard to support artists and their creative ideas and maybe this was what the award was acknowledging.

As for what I am proud to say I was involved in, there were shows at each job where I felt that I was making the shows for myself as an eight year old, and for any kids like me. I've liked many of the shows, and certainly it was a privilege to work on the earliest Nicktoons, Doug, Rugrats and Ren & Stimpy. I am proud that I fought for The Powerpuff Girls to go to series. I am proud of Samurai Jack, as I always thought it was a ground-breaking series. At PBS, I am proud of WordGirl, which is definitely the show I would have loved as an eight-year-old. And it's a huge thrill working on the next incarnation of The Electric Company, which will debut this January.

JA: Having already accomplished so much, where do you see yourself in ten years?

LS: Thanks, although I believe that the most interesting things that I'll work on are still to come. In ten years, I think the TV industry will be different in that we'll all be working on content, not TV. Perhaps I'll be working on content for some platform that doesn't exist yet. I'd like to be in a position to make sure that there is high quality animation and a good way to view it, no matter what platform we're viewing it on.

JA: Thank you for interviewing with me! To close this out, do you have a favorite cartoon of all time?

LS: That's like asking which of my children I like best... I love Bugs Bunny and The Simpsons. These answers change frequently. But this week, I am going to say Rabbit Seasoning and the Poochie episode of The Simpsons. I also like Cordell Barker's The Cat Came Back. And Totoro. This is the hardest question here. I'll have to stop now.