Alum Directs Emmy Award-Winning Educational Special

As someone who grew up wanting to be an actor, Jason Spencer had practiced lots of fake acceptance speeches for award-winning performances he’d never given.

This summer he finally had a chance to celebrate for real when a television special he directed won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Educational and Informational Series. The episode, PBS KIDS Talk About Race and Racism, received television’s highest honor for tackling a timely and complex subject.

“We wanted to meet parents where they were (after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd),” Spencer says. “We had parents asking for resources to address these tough and important topics with their kids.”

Spencer works at PBS as the Original Video Content Director for PBS KIDS. In 2018, he created and directed the series called PBS KIDS Talk About. The goal was to model authentic parent-child conversations while showcasing a child’s perspective on challenging subjects.

The idea was prompted by conversations Spencer had with his own children while he practiced lighting and filming skills at home.

The PBS KIDS Talk About seemed to be the perfect vehicle to give parents and caregivers ways to talk about race with their children. The series had already tackled difficult issues like feelings and emotions, and the importance of building relationships.

“Overall, kids have a lot to say. It’s important for grown-ups in their lives to listen to them and open up and share their experiences,” Spencer says.

The Emmy Award-winning special is hosted by Amanda Gorman, America’s first National Youth Poet Laureate. Interspersed between the conversations are clips from relevant episodes of PBS favorites like Arthur and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.

Spencer studied theatre at Minnesota State University Moorhead and performed with Straw Hat Players. While he loved being on stage, the program also required him to gain experiences on the technical side of theatre. Among other activities, he built sets, hung lights and monitored sound boards.

“I didn’t appreciate that as a student, but later on I found those experiences invaluable,” Spencer says. “That gave me the ability in my profession to communicate with people doing these other jobs.”

Spencer eventually moved to New York City to pursue an acting career. After one year he had an existential crisis: he decided that he didn’t want to perform.

“I knew I wanted to stay in that world, however, and pivoted into filmmaking,” he says.

Spencer has spent more than 20 years in the film and television industry. He has directed and edited programs for Bravo, National Geographic Television, Discovery, History, Animal Planet, the natural Resources Defense Council, and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

His passion, however, is creating engaging, entertaining and educational content for children and their families. PBS KIDS has given him the opportunity to do just that.

“You have a lot of families who are well-practiced in having these difficult conversations and you have people in your audience who are just beginning to have these conversations,” Spencer says.

Because of the pandemic, Spencer was at home with his wife and a couple of friends when the Emmys were announced. He didn’t get to give a speech, but the recognition has confirmed for his team that their work is important and valuable.

“It was such a wild ride,” he says. “I’m still feeling that great energy.”

Watch the Emmy Award-winning episode:

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