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With an ‘insane level of optimism,’ Jordan Geary ’04 creates children’s programming for the streaming generation.
By Tim Stevens ’03
nside the Manhattan hub of one of the most well-known and important forces in children’s entertainment, I meet with Sesame Workshop’s Senior Director of Production and Development Jordan Geary ’04 in what feels, in many ways, like any old conference room, albeit one with a coveted view of Lincoln Center. But just outside, there’s a cornucopia of reminders that this is a place that centers childhood curiosity: brightly colored walls lined with soothing textured fabrics, life-sized chalk drawings of the Workshop’s most recognizable characters, and a plethora of statues, costumes and video screens reminding all of Sesame’s greatest hits.
“I’ve worked in a lot of different places in a lot of different mediums, and you always start every meeting with ‘Why are you doing this?’ At Sesame, every project starts with ‘How are kids being underserved?’ It’s the purity of the mission,” Geary says of the 55-year-old nonprofit educational organization behind the iconic PBS mainstay Sesame Street.
While he has worked both in front of and behind the camera throughout his varied career in show business, Geary has spent the last eight years—a period of rapid change for the entertainment industry—creating, developing and producing innovative Sesame Workshop programming, including Sesame Street Mecha Builders, Bea’s Block and Charlotte’s Web for HBO Max; Ghostwriter and Helpsters for Apple TV+; and hundreds of videos for YouTube Kids.
But that certainly wasn’t his original plan. Back in his days as a Camel, Geary majored in music. But during his senior year, a pragmatic (if not pessimistic) lecturer laid out for his entire class how difficult it was to make music one’s living at that moment and how, at least in his estimation, it would only get worse. While several of his classmates remained committed, the speech resonated with Geary.
“It was almost time to graduate, which is pretty scary when you want to have a career pivot,” he confesses with a smile and shake of his head.
“What rescued me was Connecticut College being a liberal arts school,” he continues. “Not only did I go to music classes, I took classes in theater, art, animation, psychology and a score of other things—all stuff I use on a daily basis now.”
Ironically, it was his music background that gave him a leg up in show business.
“My very first job was working at MTV,” he recalls. “I was the guy who underscored reality TV shows with music.”
At MTV, Geary also got first taste of how quickly the entertainment landscape can shift.
“I guess you could say I worked during the high point of that MTV era. The TRL era. I worked on a show called Made. Business was booming, and I was part of the mayhem running between multiple offices all over the city.”
TRL—Total Request Live—was the station’s flagship series, hosting the most famous music and pop culture figures while showing the day’s most popular music videos to provide daily after-school entertainment to the last generation of American teenagers without social media. However, Geary was working on the shows that would soon dominate and eventually fully push music videos off the Music Television Channel—reality programming. Three years after he left Made, Jersey Shore would debut and reality would effectively, well, kill the music video star.
In 2015, he’d arrive at Sesame Workshop on the eve of another significant shift.
“The company, at that point, was just dipping its toes back into original programming beyond Sesame Street,” he explains.
Just coming on, Geary felt the pressure.
“I had a lot to prove,” he admits. “Being a new guy, helping them make a lot of new content that they hadn’t made in years was a big responsibility.”
Even though that was less than a decade ago, the media landscape at the time was very different. Streaming existed, but many prominent services we know now—Max, Peacock, Apple TV+, and the like—were still years away. So, Sesame Workshop needed to find a place to showcase their experimental content. They hit on YouTube, which conveniently stopped using Flash and began streaming 60 fps videos the year before. YouTube had both the technology and the consumer base to showcase Sesame’s original programming and allow the company to get rapid feedback.
“The channel was called Sesame Studios. We made about 300+ shorts just to see what the public response would be,” Geary says. “People loved it. The audience wanted more. After that success, Sesame Workshop said, ‘Hey, we should start making some long-form shows again.’”
From there, it was off to the races.
“We developed some shows. Nearly all of them got sold. We then went about producing them. All of them were nominated for Emmys, I’m happy to say. Some long-form shows’ success then begets more long-form shows. And that leads us to where we are right now, with a ton of series on multiple platforms.”
Geary speeds through it all so rapidly that he initially seems unmoved by it. Quickly, though, he circles back to add, “It’s a bit nuts how quickly that all has happened. I feel like I just started here yesterday. But then, when I write out what I’ve done, it feels like I’ve been here for 50 years.”
Among those accomplishments is an Emmy for his role as creative producer on Ghostwriter, a children’s mystery series. Produced as an original series for Apple TV+, the show won a 2020 Emmy for Outstanding Children’s or Family Viewing Program.
“It was really an amazing experience,” Geary says of the honor, “because that actually was a moment in history. No streaming platform had ever won an Emmy in its first year of existence, and this was Apple TV+’s first year. And [Ghostwriter] was very much a dark horse, so everyone was surprised and elated. On a personal level, though, it was one of the greatest moments of my life.”
The in-person ceremony was canceled that year because of COVID, so Geary remembers watching the remote Emmy Awards at his parents’ house with his wife and children.
“I thought, ‘We’ll see how this goes. Probably won’t happen, but how cool would it be if I won it with all the people I love the most in my life around me?’ I still have that video of winning. To be perfectly honest, on my roughest days, I’ll watch that video and be like, ‘You know, life is not too bad.’”
For better or worse, however, television and streaming are constantly evolving and changing, which means one can’t even rest on an Emmy win.
Geary acknowledges as much, explaining, “Everything has changed. When I started, linear TV was king. Now streaming is king. Long-form content was what it was all about. Now it’s all short-form. My daughters prefer watching streaming platforms over linear television because they like to control what they watch. They like video games and apps over movies because they feel like they’re part of what they’re experiencing.”
When asked where the current growth edge of the industry is, he says, “Creators can self-publish. Twenty years ago, the power was in the hands of a select few. And now it’s in everybody’s hands. The biggest challenge I think is the market is so saturated now.”
Sesame Workshop is not immune to those shifts. For years, they made television primarily for PBS. Now, in addition to PBS, they also have deals with the likes of Apple TV+ and Warner Bros’ Max. That last relationship, in particular, is at the forefront, with the two companies’ contract set to expire in 2025.
“They’ve been an amazing partner because they respect us,” asserts Geary. “They just say, ‘You guys do what you do best.’ Not a lot of partners are that way. Sesame Workshop is still its own boss. Warners is very much ‘Make what you make, and we’re happy to air it for you.’”
Still, it remains unknown what, if any, relationship the two companies will have going forward. That uncertainty can make doing any job difficult, but the senior director of production and development knows it’s important to stay upbeat and be flexible.
“[I think I bring] an insane level of optimism to the table,” Geary reflects. “I think it takes a certain level of insanity, as a creator, to say, ‘I feel like I have a story that in the hundreds of thousands of years of humankind no one’s told, and I have the vision to make it happen.’”
Later, as we continue on tour of the Workshop’s offices, we walk past the cardboard costume that proved the final catalyst for Sesame Street Mecha Builders, a computer-animated series that reflects Geary’s love of giant robots (also occasionally glimpsed in his cartoons for The College Voice back in his Conn days). He’s nearly as tall as the ridiculous suit of pressed paper battle armor—but no Big Bird jokes, please—and dressed in all black. He doesn’t exactly capture Sesame Workshop’s over 50 years of soft fuzziness. Still, he seems to fit in perfectly. Does that mean that he’s here to stay?
“The honest answer is I don’t know. As a company and as an industry, we don’t know. Things are in so much of a state of flux,” he says.
That said, Geary remains enthusiastically committed to the Workshop.
“It’s a company that knows what they are,” he says. “Every job, you have good days, you have bad days. But then when you go home, and you have this feeling like, ‘I think I made the world slightly better,’ it just kind of absolves everything.”