Nancy Kanter: It’s Her Playhouse

Nancy Kanter began her career as an editor, helping shape the vision of legendary filmmakers. Now she toils in the service of entertaining (and educating) 4-year-olds. As the senior vice president for original programming at The Disney Channel, Kanter is responsible for the network’s Playhouse Disney preschool block, which includes Mickey Mouse Clubhouse as well as Little Einsteins, Johnny and the Sprites, Handy Manny, JoJo’s Circus and the upcoming Bunnytown, a comedic half-hour that features the musical stylings of the Bunnytown Band. (They are a cross between Earth, Wind & Fire and Sly & the Family Stone.)

But Kanter’s early career as an editor on iconic films, including Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon and Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard, informed her professional development as much for the path she did take as the one not taken.

“I loved editing and I still do, and I think if I had my way, I would still edit everything I work on,” says Kanter. “It really is incredible training for doing almost anything in film and television. It gives you a chance to understand story and structure and performance and direction.”

Kanter was in her last semester at Hunter College in 1974 when the university launched a pilot internship program for art students. The goal of college administrators was to secure funding for the experiential program and in order to do that, says Kanter, they worked to place students in high-profile apprenticeships. Kanter, who was studying film and theater, was sent off to be mentored by the legendary film editor Dede Allen, an oft-Oscar-nominated editor whose credits include Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico (with Lumet) and Bonnie and Clyde and Alice’s Restaurant (with Arthur Penn). Kanter’s first apprenticeship was on Penn’s Night Moves. When the project extended beyond her graduation from Hunter, she was brought on as a bona fide employee (and joined the editors’ union).

But while she had the considerable benefit of learning at the feet of industry visionaries, it was her own vision that she yearned to cultivate.

“My problem was, I liked to have more control,” she admits. “The director would come in and say, 'Let’s try it with the close-up over here and the wide shot there.’ And I would say, 'Nah, I tried that and it doesn’t work. This is better.’”

“I realized that I didn’t have the kind of personality that was easily sublimated to somebody else’s vision.”

Kanter’s vision for shaping material combined with a keen literary sensibility on what she hoped would be her first project as a producer: a film adaptation of Anne Tyler’s coming-of-age memoir A Slipping-Down Life. But the project languished in development for so long that she relinquished it. Then one day, a magazine story about a teenager who sued her prom date after he stood her up caught Kanter’s imagination. She optioned the girl’s story and pitched it to ABC as an after-school special.

Stood Up! aired in 1990, during the twilight of ABC’s after-school special business. Shortly thereafter, Kanter was approached by Sesame Workshop (then called Children’s Television Workshop) to produce live-action Sesame Street specials and direct-to-video projects.

“I had two children, and the idea of working in children’s programming was intriguing to me,” says Kanter. After doing 30 of them, “I was sort of entrenched.”

Kanter’s husband’s work took the family to Los Angeles in 1996. (Kanter and her husband, Joseph DeCarlo, an international tax lawyer, were high school sweethearts in Bellmore, N.Y.) Kanter continued to work for the New York-based Sesame Workshop from the West Coast, but admits the schedule was a bit grueling. She assumed the presidency of, a children’s entertainment Website, in 2000 and joined The Disney Channel in 2001 as vice president of original programming. In 2004, she was promoted to senior vice president of original programming.

Along the way, Kanter and her husband raised three children: Bennett, 25; Olivia, 21; and Jonathan, 14. So far, Bennett is the only one to follow his mother into the entertainment business. He’s an assistant director and has worked on primetime series including Private Practice and Weeds. Daughter Olivia is a senior at Columbia University, studying visual anthropology. She was cured of any acting bug by age 7 when her mother put her in an episode of Sesame Street and she froze in front of the cameras.

“Nancy brings the benefit of watching three kids, two boys and a girl, respond to programming,” says Gary Marsh, president of entertainment for Disney Channel Worldwide. “I think because Nancy lives in the world professionally, there is an analytical quality to trying to understand how your own children deal with the images that they’re seeing.”

Kanter has helped to innovate Disney’s research protocols for kids programming, according to Eric Weiner, executive producer of Disney’s Little Einsteins. Kanter recruited Weiner from Nickelodeon, where research is paramount and where Weiner was working on the network’s wildly popular bilingual pre-school series Dora the Explorer. For Little Einsteins, they developed the Book-a-Matic, essentially an electronic storyboard that takes the adult out of the research equation.

“We can factor out the effect of having someone in person reading to them,” says Weiner, “which gets kids to pay attention, which gets them to be polite.”

“I think much of what makes Nancy good is her unerring instincts,” adds Marsh. “She has impeccable taste.”

She also has a respect for children’s television that belies the popular (if rapidly dissipating) opinion that children’s TV is somehow inherently inferior.

“There are people who think of children’s television as less,” says Weiner, “and she’s not one of those. She’s a very literate person and she brings all of that intelligence and those ideals to the pre-school realm, which is very exciting. I remember one of my first talks with her; I was reading Madame Bovary for the first time, and she saw I had it and it turned out she had read it five times, so she was way ahead of me. She’s someone who can talk Flaubert and pre-school TV in the same conversation.”

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