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Janice Burgess, Nickelodeon executive who created 'The Backyardigans,' dies at 72

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

A major force in children's television has died. Janice Burgess oversaw popular Nick Jr. and Nickelodeon shows such as "Blue's Clues." As NPR culture correspondent Anastasia Tsioulcas reports, she was also the creator of the animated series "The Backyardigans."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BACKYARDIGANS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Pablo) Hi. I'm Pablo.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Tyrone) My name's Tyrone.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Uniqua) I'm Uniqua.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Tasha) I'm Tasha.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As Austin) And my name's Austin.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Janice Burgess started her career in public media. She worked on kids shows at her hometown public television station, WQED in Pittsburgh, and then at Sesame Workshop. In 1995, she went to Nick Jr., the Nickelodeon channel dedicated to preschoolers, and she stayed at Nickelodeon for the rest of her career. She supervised such shows as "Little Bill" and "Blue's Clues," the latter of which was nominated for eight consecutive Emmy Awards and won a Peabody.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLUE'S CLUES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As Steve, singing) Do you want to play?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (As characters, singing) Blue's Clues.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As Steve, singing) Count to three.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (As characters, singing) One, two, three.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As Steve, singing) And clap your hands.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (As characters, singing) Clap your hands.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As Steve, singing) Learn something new.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (As characters, singing) Something new.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As Steve, singing) Join our Blue's Clues band today.

TSIOULCAS: But Janice Burgess' personal triumph was the show she created. "The Backyardigans" premiered in 2004...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BACKYARDIGANS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (As characters, singing) We're your backyard friends, The Backyardigans.

TSIOULCAS: ...Featuring the backyard imaginary adventures of a quintet of singing, dancing animals. In a 2006 speech at Washington's National Press Club broadcast by C-SPAN, Burgess said Nick Jr. relentlessly market researched their ideas before launching a show.

(SOUNDBITE OF C-SPAN BROADCAST)

JANICE BURGESS: Think about what they like. Think about what they do during the day. Think about what they eat for breakfast. Think about what makes them laugh. Think about their clothes and their shoes and their bedrooms. We do a lot of research at Nick Jr. We talk to kids. We ask kids. The creator of "Blue's Clues" called it cheating. Make sure that you know before you make the show whether kids are going to like it. Do they understand it? Is it fun?

TSIOULCAS: But in the case of "The Backyardigans," Burgess said, she also used the things that she loved most as an adult as inspiration.

(SOUNDBITE OF C-SPAN BROADCAST)

BURGESS: I am a great, great, great fan of big, fat, stupid adventure movies - car chases, dinosaurs rampaging through cities, people flying through outer space. I love that stuff. I love adventure heroes and all adventure genres.

TSIOULCAS: And so that kind of excitement, reshaped for the tastes and boundaries of preschoolers, became the spirit of "The Backyardigans." She also looked back at her childhood favorites, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF C-SPAN BROADCAST)

BURGESS: When I was a kid, I read "Treasure Island" and "Kidnapped." And I consumed "Star Wars" and "Narnia" and "Oz" books and "The Hardy Boys" and anything in which there was a sword fight.

TSIOULCAS: She also brought in notable folks from the New York City art scene for the dance and music elements, choreographer Beth Bogush from Alvin Ailey and composer Evan Lurie of the New York City band, The Lounge Lizards. Janice Burgess died March 2 in New York City of breast cancer. She was 72 years old. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BACKYARDIGANS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (As characters, singing) Together in the backyard again.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character, singing) In the place where we belong.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character, singing) Where we'll probably sing a song.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character, singing) And we'll maybe dance along. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.