Unlikely Ally: How ‘Orange is the New Black’ is Promoting Early Literacy

It’s hard to imagine that script writers of “Criminal Minds,” a CBS TV drama about psychopaths, would include a storyline about the importance of reading and singing to your child. But that’s exactly what they are doing with the help of Too Small to Fail.

As part of the Seeding Reading project, we sat down with Stephen Massey, senior manager, media and corporate partnerships at Too Small to Fail to talk about the organization’s latest efforts to reach millions of families—including the large and devoted Univision audience—with a different sort of message.

This is a condensed and edited version of that conversation.

Seeding Reading

This post is part of Seeding Reading, an series of articles and analysis by New America’s Ed Policy Program and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. See also the Learning Tech section of EdCentral.org and the JGCC blog.

Barbara Ray: First off, what is Too Small to Fail?

Stephen Massey:  Too Small to Fail is a joint initiative between the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation and the San Francisco-based Next Generation. Its purpose is to encourage parents to talk, read, and sing to their young children in an effort to help close the word gap to prepare them for success in school and beyond.

Why focus on the word gap?

Research tells us that there’s a window of opportunity in the first three years of a child’s life to help that child develop its brain and the vocabulary that will allow the child to be ready for school and later, for life. So we chose the word gap as an area of focus, with a real challenge from Secretary Clinton to find innovative ways to reach parents with this message in trusted formats and settings.

Too Small to Fail has partnered with Univision, an American Spanish-Language broadcast network, on a series of public service announcements and other outreach. Why Univision?

When we launched this campaign, Secretary Clinton was very clear that she wanted to reach lowest-income Americans and those most in need. We know from the research that Hispanic Americans tend to talk, read, and sing less to their children than other groups, particularly low-income Hispanic Americans. Hispanic Americans could really use this message. From focus groups, we heard that Univision is the top source of information for viewers on a range of issues, from health to education.

As part of our Seeding Reading interviews, we were just talking with Roberto Llamas, the executive vice president and corporate officer of Univision Communications. He said that viewers trust Univision so much that they regularly call the station with questions about where to find the best doctor or during Hurricane Sandy, what they should do—that’s a trusted source.

Univision has the highest brand equity of any media company, English or Spanish, in the United States. That’s because since its founding, Univision been the voice of the Hispanic community. In addition to its great on-air assets, it has an affiliate network of 23 stations around the country. In each, they have a community affairs manager whose job it is to reach out and engage the local community. That’s really powerful reach.



You’ve also gone to Hollywood for help in spreading the message by working the messages into the scripts of some of the most popular television shows, from “Modern Family” to “Criminal Minds”? I’m having a hard time imagining how you do that with “Criminal Minds.”

They’re developing that one yet so I haven’t seen it. Stay tuned! We’ve worked with script writers and producers on some obvious shows like “Parenthood” or “Modern Family” where you’d expect that to be an easy message to integrate. But we’ve also been in some shows you wouldn’t expect, like “Orange Is the New Black” and “Criminal Minds.” Turns out that it’s good TV.

We started our Hollywood work by bringing Secretary Clinton and Chelsea to Hollywood for a half-day session with the top producers and others. Secretary Clinton made a passionate argument for the power of media to deliver this message and why this message is so important to parents. Many parents don’t understand what kind of impact they can have, and the role they play in developing their child’s mind. Being able to dive through powerful platform like TV can make a big difference.

Do you have to educate the screenwriters on this topic?

This was a new message for them too. Often it means doing briefings with the script writers.  But ultimately, they’re the best at delivering fun, educational content in a way that’s entertaining.

We’re not so interested in having Too Small to Fail appear on the screen. We’re more interested in modeling the kinds of behavior we want parents to engage in with their kids. Showing what the interaction looks like. Making “talking, reading, and singing” easily accessible during everyday opportunities—when changing a diaper or at soccer practice. Any way they can create a more language-rich environment. So working with producers to create those moments on popular television shows has been a real win for us.

What’s been the impact of the initiative?

What we’ve seen is tremendous audience feedback. We’ve had 280 million campaign impressions this year on the Univision campaign alone. We’ve seen tremendous use of our resources online at Univision. Visits have increased, families are using the tools we’ve created. We’ve heard from focus groups how the messages have changed their behavior. Last week Univision’s local station in Los Angeles hosted an education fair, and 40,000 people showed up at Cal State Dominguez Hills. It’s just a tremendous response from this audience. I’ve honestly never seen anything like it.


Barbara E. Ray is a writer and editor living in Chicago. As owner of Hiredpen, Inc., she helps researchers and nonprofit organizations convey their work to broader audiences. She was the communications director for the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, and has held positions as senior writer at the DHHS-funded Joint Center for Poverty Research, and as a managing editor at the University of Chicago Press journals division.