November 6, 2020
On the eve of DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group hosting its fourth annual Hedy Lamarr Awards presentation on Nov. 9, Media Play News sat down with the winner of the 2020 Hedy Lamarr Award for Innovation in Entertainment Technology, Sara DeWitt, VP of PBS Kids Digital, for a discussion of her career path.
The DEG created the Innovation Award to recognize female executives in the fields of entertainment and technology who have made a significant contribution to the industry.
Media Play News: What are your thoughts on winning this year’s Hedy Lamarr Award, and why is a program such as this important?
DeWitt: I am honored to receive this award; I’m truly amazed to be associated with Hedy Lamarr and the other pioneers recognized by DEG through this program. I know that I am fortunate to work with a team at PBS Kids that is passionate about improving technology and media for young children, and I am so grateful for this recognition. Women have accomplished great things in this industry for a long time, but are historically underappreciated and still underrepresented in its leadership. It’s important to highlight their accomplishments, and help support other women as they build their careers in media.
What inspires you most about Hedy Lamarr?
I’m inspired by how Hedy Lamarr forged her own path in a new country, building an acting career while also pursuing her interests in science and invention. I love that she excelled both in the creative arts and in science and technology.
Tell us about your career path.
As an English major with a concentration on children’s studies, I was focused on children’s books and early literacy development. My senior year at Stanford, I took a class called Interactive Narrative and Artificial Intelligence, which was cross-listed between Computer Science and English. Not only did I learn HTML, but I also became fascinated with digital games and storytelling, and the ways they could help kids explore new concepts and skills. Over 20 years ago, I was hired by PBS to work on their relatively new website for children; I was a good fit for the job because I had both a child development background and knew some basic programming! I’ve always been focused on children’s content and, specifically, on how kids can learn through different types of media and technology. I’ve been fortunate to work with leaders — many of them women — who have encouraged me in this path, and taught me to have confidence in my own expertise as I’ve grown.
If you had to pick one career highlight, what would it be?
In 2009, I recommended to senior management that we launch a streaming video player for the preschool audience. My boss was skeptical that such a young audience would access video this way. I felt differently; my amazing team and I secured funding, designed, and launched the service, predicting we would deliver 5 million streams per month. In its first month, the PBS Kids Video player served 84 million streams. Today, the PBS KIDS Video player is available on mobile and OTT platforms as well as Smart TVs, and averages 359 million streams per month.
How important is technology and innovation to your job?
My role at PBS Kids is focused on helping children learn through media. As children’s use of media evolves and new platforms emerge, we have even more opportunities to consider how that media can help children learn, discover a new passion, or see characters like themselves reflected on screen. By being innovative with technology, we have the opportunity to better serve all kids with content that resonates with them, and helps them better understand the world around them.
How important is technology and innovation to our industry, overall?
Our industry has been innovating from the beginning. In fact, 50 years ago, PBS launched with a mission to reimagine the television medium. Fred Rogers of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was one of the pioneers in this space, recognizing that new technology had the power to help children understand their emotions. PBS is constantly innovating both technologically and in our content, across more platforms and media types than ever.
What’s next on your agenda?
The kids media landscape has shifted dramatically in the last eight months, as stay-at-home orders and distance learning have gone into effect. I’m very focused on how we can best meet the needs of kids and families in this new environment, especially those who may not have the latest devices or most reliable Internet access. We have the opportunity to be creative with technology as a means to help reach as many kids as possible with shows and games that can help them learn and grow.