At home in the House of Mouse

At home in the House of Mouse
Nancy Kanter, inside her Burbank office, says children’s programming isn’t “just about distracting kids for a half-hour. We’re helping to shape them.” (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles Times)

The gig: Nancy Kanter is executive vice president of original programming and general manager at Disney Junior Worldwide, the preschool division of Disney Channels Worldwide. Based at the company's Burbank headquarters, she oversees development and production for all Disney Junior series, including "Sofia the First" and "Doc McStuffins," in addition to leading its global strategy.

Education: Bachelor's degree in theater and film at Hunter College in New York City.


Empty nest: Kanter lives in the Hollywood Hills with her husband, an attorney who practices international tax law. Their three adult children "flew the coop" long ago.

Childhood ambitions: When Kanter was a child, her first career goal was to be the next Nellie Blye. "I wanted to be a female foreign correspondent and live the kind of life that she did," she recalled. "For a long time, I thought I was going to go into journalism." But dreams are sometimes fickle. After seeing the Audrey Hepburn movie "Charade," she wanted to be a translator at the U.N. "I was easily influenced by what I read and what I saw — not real life."

Turning bananas into lemonade: Kanter's first job came at 16, serving as a clerk at Waldbaums supermarket — a New York equivalent of Ralphs. She was fired three days after getting into an argument with a customer who accused her of smashing bananas with a soup can while bagging groceries.

"My boss was basically like, 'We don't think you have the personnel skills to handle this kind of job.' And look at me now!" She added: "I don't put it on my resume."

First TV gig: Kanter's post-grad life was as an apprentice to renowned film editor Dede Allen on the movie "Dog Day Afternoon." After some time in the editing world, she transitioned to television for no real reason other than "opportunities presenting themselves." Her first foray with the small screen was pitching ABC an idea for their After School Specials. It was called "Stood Up," based on a real story about a young Florida girl who sued her date when he stood her up for their senior prom. "I thought it sent a good message about female empowerment."

All in the family: Kanter's mother was once a preschool teacher who went on to own her own preschools. Her two sisters also run preschools.

"It's something I've reflected on," Kanter said. "In the moment, it didn't occur to me how we were all sort of in the same line of business — or at least, serving the same audience — but as I've looked back, I've thought, 'Gee, that's funny.'"

When I was a kid ...: Kanter, let's not forget, was once a preschooler. And when she sat in front of the television as a tot, she was enchanted by "The Shari Lewis Show."

"I loved Lamb Chop. It was weird. I mean, I knew [Shari] was manipulating the hand puppet but, yet, I thought the thing was a real character."

And Kanter wanted in on the fun.

"I remember using my socks as hand puppets, gluing weird things as eyeballs and trying to come up with a kooky voice."

9021-ugh: Kanter's move from New York to L.A. came 18 years ago after her lawyer husband came upon a job opportunity.

Kanter had little success in the home search while still based in New York, so her husband did the picking. And his choice had Kanter a bit embarrassed.

"When he said Beverly Hills, I freaked out. This was like at the height of 'Beverly Hills, 90210.' It was like, 'Oh my god, what are people going to think?' When I had to give somebody my ZIP Code, I would go '9...02...1...0,' so they couldn't figure out it was 90210. I mean, it was a nice house. It just felt so odd to be the New York transplant living in Beverly Hills."


Not quite child's play: "Most people outside the children's programming circle don't understand how hard it is to do," Kanter said. "They're like, Well, they're 4, how hard could it be?' News flash: It's really hard. Not only do we have to keep their attention, but we have to be teachers. It's not just about distracting kids for a half-hour. We're helping to shape them, so the messaging that the kids take away is important, and it requires a lot of careful attention. And it takes a lot of creativity."

Love lessons: Shocking but true: Kanter wasn't exactly a Disney fanatic before joining the company, nor were her kids. Theirs was not a family that went to Disneyland (though they now have Silver Passes — a House of Mouse perk!).

"I came to understand and appreciate the effect Disney stories have on kids and their families," she said. "There's an element of tradition that is based on how we tell our stories, and the emotions they elicit, and that is a really huge gift. And at Disney Junior we try to tap into that."