Getting to know… J.J. Johnson
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
I grew up in a small town in Ontario, Canada. When you grow up in a small town you get used to always feeling on the outside looking in. I think it gives you an interesting perspective on the world, one that continues to shape the kinds of shows we like to make. We’re on a quest to show different faces, different points of view, different lives, using media to make the unfamiliar familiar and the different unique.
You started your company “Sinking Ship Entertainment” in 2004. What drove you to start this company?
My friend and I started Sinking Ship because I think we both knew intrinsically that we couldn’t work for other people. Our ambitions and capacity for risk would not have sat well at an established company. I’ve said before that I wouldn’t hire me and I think that still holds true, we’re at our best when we’re up against an outside obstacle, an external challenge. I think if we had to answer to a boss or a board then that bullheadedness would be a detraction, not a plus.
Your passion for science-based kids’ programming is well-known. How do you experience the connection between academic and industry in your current position?
Research to me is a double-edged sword. On the one side it can spur you to action, as the gender research findings from Prix Jeunesse inspired me to create Annedroids. On the other, it can be used to stifle creativity and opportunity as multiple U.S. networks citing their own internal research that showed boys would not watch a girl led program like Annedroids (research which ultimately proved false). I’d never want research to kill a good idea or a chance for risk taking. Although we don’t conduct formal formative research on our episodes, we do often enlist help from consultants and try to stay up-to-date on the related academic research. But I always encourage our consultants and academic partners to think beyond the curriculum aims of our audience’s demographics and instead lean towards how to spark a young mind. Annedroids explores life and death, artificial intelligence and the philosophical questions that sprout from that, natural sciences, religion, puberty; the list goes on and on. From a curriculum point of view we’re all over the place, from a kid point of view, we’re tapping into everything they’re thinking about.
What is the most fun part of your work?
Working with our young casts. Sinking Ship’s main strength is that she’s close to her source material. Every day we get the opportunity to work with kids; if you make them a part of the creative process, genuinely listen to their feedback and get to know them, the end product only becomes stronger and you work harder because they deserve the very best.
What is the most challenging part of your work?
Working with our young casts. Kids are honest, sometimes painfully honest; they’ll let you know when something’s not working in the most visceral of ways. And money. I’m not a fan of money, I don’t like how it controls the television market forces that have kept girls underrepresented, made certain topics taboo and been used as the barometer for what constitutes creative success.
What was your favorite show as a child and why?
Transformers. Optimus Prime is still my moral compass. He knew what was right and wrong and wasn’t afraid to put his life on the line to defend the greater good. Plus I always wanted to transform into a truck.
You are the co-chair of Youth Media Alliance which aims to ensure screen-based content is produced that has a positive impact on children and adolescents. YMA also conducts its own research on media effects. Can you tell us about its most recent research?
YMA is a unique consortium of engaged media producers and broadcasters and the perfect avenue for disseminating “digestible” research results to those creating content for children. An upcoming research project that YMA is involved with is exploring how virtual-reality can be embedded into children’s media in a meaningful way that supports (rather than distracts from) the intended goals of a program (educational or otherwise). This is a unique collaborative project, working with academics in CAM, including Nancy Jennings and Colleen Russo Johnson. In talking with them and other academics, we discovered that finding content to test in an effective way is difficult. To counteract that, we’re working with this team to design a VR episode of our new show Dino Dana that will lend itself to a controlled research design. Because VR for children is still relatively new, we’re eager to provide some general information about VR’s usability with young children.
What is an important question that you have for academics studying media and children?
What do kids need to see today to be better human beings tomorrow?
Thank you JJ for the interview! All CAMmers are invited to learn more about JJ’s work at CAM’s preconference on “Invention & Intervention: Blending Research with Practice to Develop Effective Media for Youth” in San Diego (2017).
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