Sivan is a perky little girl with a bright pink face and floppy red hair. She also happens to be a Muppet character that uses a wheelchair. Sivan made her television debut several years ago on the Israeli version of Sesame Street, called Rechov SumSum. She is the brainchild of Hop! Media Group, who co-produces Sesame Street in Israel, and who sought the expertise of Beit Issie Shapiro, a non-profit that promotes the inclusion of people with special needs. Since then, their work together has spawned numerous education initiatives and outreach programs for children with special needs.
Hop! operates three channels in Israel dedicated exclusively to young children. Their educational, entertaining, and violence-free programs are cyber safe havens for children and their families. Founded in 1999, the multi-media company produces, distributes, and acquires content across multiple platforms. ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Lia Martirosyan caught up with Hop!’s co-founder, Alona Abt, to learn more about the company’s genesis, its fruitful collaboration with Beit Issie Shapiro, and the media group’s future plans.
Lia Martirosyan: We were first introduced to you through Beit Issie Shapiro in Israel a few months ago. Can you tell us about what you do and how you connected with Beit Issie?
Alona Abt: We are the content provider. We started our broadcast 15 years ago. We were the first in the world to launch a preschool channel. Today it seems like a very basic concept, but 15 years ago, we were the first who felt that there’s a need in the market for a channel that would be a safe haven for young children and for parents to trust their children to sit and view. That’s how we set up HOP!, our multi-media company. We now have an additional two channels, so we have quite a large market share in Israel. The broadcasting is a mix of content that we acquire and content that we produce ourselves. Among our productions, we’ve also had a long partnership for the last 15 years with Sesame Workshop, and we co-produce with them an Israeli version of Sesame Street called Rechov SumSum.
In one of the seasons that we created, we were thinking about what character to introduce next, and we came up with the idea of Sivan, a little Muppet girl who sits in a wheelchair. When we started thinking about adding this character to the cast, we felt that we needed a professional to guide us on the different issues and the best way to explain things to kids and their families. So our cooperation with Beit Issie Shapiro started back then.
Since then, our relationship has grown in many directions. We have benefited from their input on this series and on other initiatives that relate to children with special needs. We, in return, have designed, in the seasons to come, content that from the beginning was aimed to be not only for broadcast but also as media units to be used as an outreach program. Beit Issie Shapiro and our education team created a teachers’ guide, which Beit Issie introduced to kindergarten teachers in training seminars. This not only offers suggestions for instructional activities for teachers, but also video clips that teachers can show to the kindergarteners. In addition, we also offer supporting material on the Internet. We also initiate activities in the real world; I say the real world, but I mean in places where children can meet other children who are different than they are.
Beit Issie has a wonderful initiative called the Friends Park in Ra’anana called Park Chaverim. It’s a park that has games for children with special needs. It’s built in such a way that a child who is blind or who doesn’t hear well or who needs to move around in a wheelchair can participate. The concept of the park is to bring together children with and without special needs so they can become friends.
We branded the park with our characters using the connection that we had already created in the public with Sivan. That’s just one of the highlights that we’ve done together. It’s been a very good partnership for us. We are media people. We’re not educators. But we do aspire to use media in a way that benefits children’s lives and their families. Whenever we meet a group of professionals with a big heart like the staff of Beit Issie Shapiro, we can benefit from their know-how, experience and continual interest in expanding their influence. It’s very stimulating for us.
Lia: That’s wonderful.
Cooper: You have the little girl who uses the wheelchair. Have you developed any other characters with different disabilities?
Alona: Before Sivan, we had a character who wore glasses. Glasses compared to a wheelchair can seem minor, but in the life of a child, it’s a big frustration, especially when they’re first told they have to wear glasses. In general, we try to incorporate into our various shows children with different disabilities—not necessarily Sesame Street—but in other shows that we produce. The problem is that as we are television, so the viewers have to understand that they’re looking at a child who is different from them. It pushes us to make choices of a very physical, external difference between the child on the screen and the majority of the children. That doesn’t always necessarily promote the needs of children who maybe externally don’t look different than other children, but do have different challenges, such as children with autism. We ran a story about a child with a hearing aid and one who is blind.
Cooper: Have you thought about having characters who have visible disabilities but not having to build a story around them, meaning they’re just there as part of the fabric of any society?
Alona: Yeah, we do that. We make it a point in different shows that whenever we show a group of real children, we include children with different disabilities.
Cooper: That’s good. Any plans that you could talk about for the future?
Alona: We are looking into the possibility of following the launch announced recently in the US of the autism initiative that Sesame Workshop did in the US, so we’re discussing what can be done here in Israel with local partners. Perhaps using the power of the Muppets through our channels and our Internet. In general, we’ll be creating a campaign that deals more with empowering children to believe in their strengths. In whatever we do next, we want to weave into our shows children who have all types of strengths.
Cooper: When you say “strengths,” can you give us some examples?
Alona: By strengths, I mean empowering children to believe in their abilities. We are very concerned about violence, and it’s very difficult for children in general and children in Israel specifically not to be confronted with violence that threatens or violence that is within. It’s about making the differentiation between how you can be strong, without using your physical strength.
Lia: Fantastic. How did you get into this? Please share a little about your background.
Alona: I was a producer of children’s programming in documentaries. My partner and I had a distribution company. When the multi-channel environment started to happen, we understood that there was an opportunity to cater to children. That’s when we became interested in creating a destination for children and families and when we came up with the idea of creating a channel.
Since then, my partner and I not only share HOP!, Luli and Yaldut Israelit channels, but most importantly, we also share a family of three children of our own. We had the opportunity as parents to be inspired by our children, and to use this inspiration in our work and vice versa. We are able to see things from around the world and hopefully bring them back to our children in a way that benefits them.
Our children are now beyond preschool, but we have stayed in the very innocent and wonderful world of the preschoolers. Our business has expanded in that we focus on more than just our linear channels. We are also very active digitally, so we have YouTube channels, and we are creating VOD and game apps.
Cooper: That’s very nice. When you say “preschool,” I’m curious to know at what age does your content stop?
Alona: We aim our content at first graders, which is six or seven in Israel. It doesn’t mean that a nine-year-old is not welcome. On the contrary, we know from the audience response that many families have several kids of different ages, so a nine-year-old can still find content that is interesting for him or her. But we know that once the children enter school, they also feel peer pressure, and they want to feel like big boys and girls and don’t want to admit they’re watching a channel for younger children. It’s dealing with a brand new question of, what do six- and seven-year-olds watch today?
How do they want to position themselves in the eyes of their peer group?
Cooper: In terms of production, how much content do you produce per year?
Alona: We produce about four series per year. Most of the series have about 20 episodes each. Most of our episodes are up to 10 minutes long. I would say that about 30 percent of our airtime is composed of our own local productions.
Cooper: You’ve talked about reaching a more international audience. Have you done anything on the airwaves with digital technology that would allow you to connect with and see other children around the world and/or teach technology to these kids?
Alona: Not yet, although it’s very interesting. There are many questions of children’s privacy and protection that have to be considered. We have done many things that invite children to create their own personalized version of content that we provide and that allows them to give their own personal artistic expression to the topics we address. For instance, we’ll request that children send us pictures about different things. Just now, we’re running a PSA in which we ask children to send us pictures of things made of recycled materials. It’s amazing. We’ve received such beautiful pictures of things that kids made at home. On our website, we’ve created a virtual gallery where we can display the pictures. In the future, I think we would love to have the possibility of children just presenting themselves and their lives and having them be good facilitators to make connections. I think it will open up many possibilities, especially for children who have difficulty participating in regular day-to-day social activities with their age group.
I think the possibility of transmitting from their sheltered homes and protected rooms can open up new dimensions. But we’re not there yet.
Cooper: Are you connecting with any other countries yet?
Alona: No, not really.
Cooper: What’s slowing you down? Come on!
Alona: (laughs) Thank you. OK! No problem!
Cooper: While you were talking about all the great things you’ve done, I was picturing an episode where one or more of the characters are looking at either a desktop or a mobile device and watching something. What they’re watching becomes live on the screen, but they might be watching, let’s say, somebody like Lia, singing wonderful music. As they listen, they realize that abilities vary.
Alona: You’re right. For instance, we have different guests on our shows. One of our guests was a member of Israel’s Olympic swim team. She won a medal and she was relatively known in Israel, so it was very interesting to see the children’s amazement that someone in a wheelchair could not only be a sportswoman, but could also win an international award. I’m sure media can be very instrumental in bringing people together with different abilities and needs.
Cooper: That’s powerful awareness building.
Alona: Just to revert back to your question about contact with other countries, we did go a little beyond our Israeli borders with our character Sivan. Sesame Workshop found her so efficient and good that when they were working on a new production with their Brazilian partners, we flew Sivan over to them, and they hosted Sivan as a special guest on the new series that also related to children in wheelchairs.
Cooper: Oh, good.
Alona: So Sivan did travel abroad. And not only that, we were very happy to hear that the digital work the Brazilian producers did around Sivan was nominated for a digital kids’ Emmy award. With that, we felt that we did something right. It’s not only good for Israel, but it’s good for wherever there are kids and for those who care for kids.