Deborah Forte has a lot on her plate: As executive vice president of New York-based Scholastic, she’s charged with developing worldwide media, feature film, television and consumer-products business for the children’s publishing, education and media titan. On top of that, she created PBS’s animated series Maya & Miguel, now celebrating its fifth anniversary. Forte spoke to Hispanic TV Update about the series’ celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15), the launch of a new online game and a live tour of the series’ lead characters. An edited excerpt follows:
Q: Unlike other Scholastic series, Maya & Miguel did not originate from a book but was created from scratch as an animated series. What was the creative process behind it?
A: Maya & Miguel was an original idea, which came to fruition with two goals in mind: One was to promote cultural diversity and the other was to encourage a language acquisition, and usage, in this case Spanish. We wanted young people to be able to admire and understand families and people who might not necessarily speak English as a native language. We wanted to show the value of being able to speak two languages. We didn’t want children to think that speaking another language was an impediment but an attribute.
Q: Why settle on Latinos and not other minorities?
A: We felt at the time that the Latino children, and Latino families, were underserved. They didn’t really have a role model they could identify themselves with. There were other characters, but it was either a child alone or two kids; what we did was to create a whole family model. There is [Nickelodeon’s] Dora the Explorer, but she is different, because it’s not so much about culture but about language.
Q: With Maya & Miguel now airing on most PBS stations across the country, what’s next for the characters?
A: We are doing live shows, with the characters making public appearances in several cities, including Indianapolis, Killeen, Texas, and Gainesville, Fla., as part of the Maya & Miguel Latin Fun Fest, and to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. We are also launching activities on the Web, including online game Paco’s Passport, which teaches Spanish words, highlights facts from Latin American countries and focuses on the accomplishments of high-profile Hispanics.
Q: After five years on the air, what would you say have been the most important Maya & Miguel milestones?
A: We have been celebrated not only by television critics, but by community leaders from both the Hispanic community and non-Hispanic communities, who are using the show and the show’s characters at their respective communities and, in many instances, as educational tools. And that’s great, because you know you have made a difference. And being still on TV after five years … well, we must be doing something right.
Q: Have you thought of extending the series to a movie?
A: We have discussed that, but we need a big idea. A movie would need to feel different [from the TV series] so that there will be a value added to the experience. Having it as a TV series is now what’s really important, because it is free, available to all and has become part of the mainstream landscape.
Q: What about merchandising?
A: We have done some very selective merchandising, such as books, dolls and videos. But that that was never our intention, nor the motivation to do the show. We don’t want to exploit the characters because we need children to have positive role models.