In the summer of 1994, Nickelodeon handed three novice producers a monumental task: Create a hit television show for preschoolers, and do it on a shoestring budget. After 30 days holed up in a tiny conference room high above Times Square, the three came up a puzzle-based show starring a little blue dog. Over the course of 11 years, Blue’s Clues not only became the hit Nickelodeon sought—it exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations. On the 20th anniversary of the show's premiere episode, we look back at Blue, Steve, Joe, and the show that redefined children’s television.
1. THE SHOW WAS STEEPED IN RESEARCH.
Todd Kessler, Angela Santomero, and Traci Paige Johnson—the trio that developed Blue’s Clues—wanted the show to be entertaining as well as educational. Along with co-creator Santomero, who had a master’s degree in child developmental psychology from Columbia University, the team enlisted the help of educators and consultants to craft a format that reflected the latest research in early childhood development.
Instead of the varied, nonlinear format popularized by Sesame Street and geared toward short attention spans, the team developed a narrative format. To keep kids engaged, they enlisted their help by having host Steve Burns pose questions to the camera, then pause to hear their answers. Simple, recognizable objects and sounds became the clues that eased young viewers into each episode, while the puzzles grew more challenging without becoming frustrating. The show had its own research department, which was rare for a kids’ program. Its research-based approach became what the production team called the "special sauce" in its recipe for success.
2. REPETITION WAS KEY.
The Blue’s Clues team wanted to promote mastery in children—that feeling that they were experts on a given topic. More than memorization or rote learning, mastery boosts kids’ self-esteem and ensures they’ll internalize information, which in turn better prepares them for school. Enforcing mastery requires repetition. So the show’s script repeated key words and phrases over and over in varying contexts. In the episode "Blue’s Predictions," for example, second host Joe says the word "predict" 15 times to help viewers become acquainted with the word. After finding that kids' engagement with the show increased with repeat viewings, Nickelodeon decided to air the same episode every day for a week before moving on to a new one.
3. THE PRODUCERS FIELD TESTED EACH EPISODE THREE TIMES.
After each script was finished, the show’s research team would test it on a classroom full of preschoolers, noting how the children responded to the material. The team would move on to another group, and then another, using the kids' reactions to further develop the episode as it went into the animation phase. All told, each episode took around nine to 10 months to produce.
4. THE ORIGINAL PRODUCTION TEAM PROVIDED SOME OF THE VOICES.
Because they were working with such a limited budget, the production team provided voices for the show themselves rather than hire talent. Nick Balaban, who composed the music, played the role of Mr. Salt, while his co-composer, Michael Rubin, provided the voice of The Sun. In determining who would play the part of Blue, the team went around the table to see who had the best bark. The winner was co-creator Traci Paige Johnson, who filled the role throughout the show’s run.
5. BLUE WAS ORIGINALLY A CAT.
Johnson, Santomero, and Kessler’s first choice for their show’s main character was an orange cat named Mr. Orange. They didn’t like that color, so they turned the cat blue and named him Mr. Blue. However, Nickelodeon already had an animated series in the pipeline that featured a cat, so the network asked the team to pick a different animal. "We thought, it couldn’t be a little puppy, could it?" said Johnson in a behind-the-scenes special celebrating the show’s 10th anniversary. The team made the switch.
6. MR. SALT ORIGINALLY SOUNDED LIKE TONY SOPRANO.
In the anniversary special, Balaban gave viewers a taste of the voice he initially gave Mr. Salt. "'Ey Mrs. Pepper! Blue’s in the kitchen and looks like he could use a little help," the composer bellowed, in an accent reminiscent of The Sopranos’s leading mobster. Balaban quickly shifted to a softer-sounding French accent after the production team deemed the accent too gruff.
7. THE HOST WAS SUPPOSED TO BE FEMALE.
In conceiving the show, the production team envisioned a female host interacting with Blue and the gang. When it came time to cast the show, though, they opened up auditions to both male and female actors. After looking at more than 1000 eager young aspirants, they found that Steve Burns, a 22-year-old whose only previous credits included an episode of Law & Order and a Dunkin' Donuts commercial, got the best response from test audiences. "There was something about this kid fresh out of Pennsylvania," said Johnson in the anniversary special. "He knew just how to look into the camera and talk to the kids."
8. STEVE BURNS DIDN’T LOOK THE PART.
As a young actor, Burns didn’t have his sights set on a kids’ show—quite the opposite, in fact. "I had moved to New York to become Serpico," he said in a 2010 monologue at The Moth, a storytelling venue located in New York. As such, Burns sported a grungy '90s look, complete with long hair, earrings, and facial stubble. Before he auditioned for Blue’s Clues, Johnson called up Burns' agent and told him to clean up his appearance before he came in. He did, and immediately went from tough guy to kiddie favorite.
9. HIS GREEN POLO SHIRTS WERE UNCOMFORTABLE.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Burns joked that his signature green polos were "carefully handmade to be as uncomfortable as possible." The shirts were a hit with kids, of course—perhaps too much so. After parents complained to the network that their children wouldn’t take off their green polo shirts—because Steve never did—producers decided to give replacement host Donovan Patton (a.k.a. Joe) a more varied wardrobe.
10. STEVE ONCE CRASHED A KID’S BIRTHDAY PARTY.
After being named one of People Magazine’s most eligible bachelors in 2000, Burns started getting a lot of date requests. One that particularly interested him came from a swimsuit model, who mailed him a picture with her phone number. Burns called and arranged dinner, and agreed to pick her up at her home in New Jersey. When he finally met her, he discovered a significant size difference between the two of them (Burns is 5’6”). Eager to impress, he saw a sign in front of her neighbor’s house for a Blue’s Clues themed birthday party. "I had the green polo and some toys in the back of my car," he said during his appearance at The Moth. "And I thought, 'This is the only game you’ve got right now.'" Bewildered parents watched as the television host burst onto the scene and entertained the delighted crowd. The party was a complete success. The rest of the date? Not so much.
11. THE PRODUCERS WERE VERY CAREFUL ABOUT LICENSING.
With more than 14 million young viewers tuning in every week, Blue’s Clues had massive earning potential in licensed toys, clothes, games, and other products. But Nickelodeon and the show’s creators didn't just lend Blue's image to any candy company or board game maker that came calling. Knowing that the show’s popularity came from its ability to educate and empower children, the team carefully reviewed every licensing opportunity. Many companies were turned away.
In reviewing a proposal from a clothing company, the Blue’s Clues team interviewed parents about their kids' clothing needs. "We thought, what can we do to help children dress themselves?" Alice Wilder, director of research and development for the show, said in an interview. The result: a line of clothing with elastic waistbands and big buttons that color-matched with each buttonhole.
12. IT GOT SESAME STREET TO CHANGE ITS FORMAT.
When Blue’s Clues premiered in 1996, its main competition was Sesame Street, which had been on the air for nearly three decades. Within just a few years, Nickelodeon’s little blue dog had eclipsed Big Bird and company, prompting the PBS mainstay to change its long-standing format to include more interactive segments and other elements that appealed to preschoolers.
13. THE FLAMING LIPS INSPIRED BURNS TO LEAVE THE SHOW.
In 2001, at the height of Blue's Clues's popularity, Burns suddenly announced he was quitting the show. The decision rocked the production team, who tried desperately to persuade him to stay. And it would go on to shock TV watchers, fueling death rumors that grew so pervasive, Burns had to go on The Rosie O’Donnell Show to prove he was still alive. But Burns had his reasons.
In an interview with SPIN, Burns talked about a party he had gone to the year before where he heard The Flaming Lips' album The Soft Bulletin for the first time. "It completely rearranged my head," Burns told the magazine. The whimsical, yearning alt-rock inspired Burns to begin writing music again, something he had done as a teenager growing up in rural Pennsylvania. After quickly penning three dozen songs, Burns knew he wanted to pursue a music career. In 2003 he made good on his decision, releasing Songs for Dustmites, a critically acclaimed album that featured The Flaming Lips' Steven Drozd on drums.
14. BURNS HAD OTHER REASONS, TOO.
In the years since his departure, Burns has revealed that his hair loss also influenced his decision to leave. "I refused to lose my hair on a kids' TV show, and it was happening fast," he said in the anniversary special. Burns has also discussed how the show's runaway success made him uncomfortable, particularly since he didn't intend to make a career in children's television. "I began thinking, do they have the right guy here?" he said during his Moth monologue. "Maybe they need a teacher or a child development specialist. I was very, very conflicted about it."
15. DONOVAN PATTON DIDN’T KNOW WHAT THE SHOW WAS ABOUT WHEN HE AUDITIONED.
Having never watched Blue’s Clues, the 24-year-old actor who would replace Burns thought the show was about a dog that played blues music. Luckily, that didn’t affect his audition for the role of replacement host. Like Burns, Patton was a hit with preschool test audiences—a reception he credited to a warm relationship with his 5-year-old sister. Burns worked extensively with Patton, and in 2002 viewers watched as Steve went off to college and his younger brother, Joe, took over.
16. BLUE'S CLUES WAS VERY EFFECTIVE.
In the years since Blue’s Clues debuted, study after study has venerated the show’s effectiveness as an educational tool. Researchers at the University of Alabama found that regular viewers displayed increased learning comprehension over non-viewers. Another study from Vanderbilt University suggested that the show’s participatory format increased social interaction in children, while others have shown that watching Blue’s Clues enhanced kids’ vocabulary. Imitation may be the greatest testament to the show’s value, with programs like Dora the Explorer following the interactive path Blue’s Clues set down.