Janet’s Planet creator seeks expanded orbit

Friday, January 20, 2012, Vol. 36, No. 3

Janet Ivey

When Janet Ivey was a student in Miss Ernestine Yarbrough’s fifth-grade class in Covington, she was already interested in academics. But the way her teacher was able to combine other lessons like spelling and social studies into a more technical curriculum like science really stuck with her.

“I can still hear her voice,” Ivey says. “She was magnificent and was just such an amazing teacher who inspired us to write and to be creative and to think of learning as a creative task so that science just kind of came alive.”

Ivey has carried that sensibility of making science fun with her. And her experience on stage at Opryland in the 90s really honed her ability to perform for children. And in 2000, three years after the park closed, the Belmont graduate performed in a series of videos for The Opryland Kid’s Club and was noticed by a producer with Nashville Public Television.

That was the beginning of Janet’s Planet, now a decade-old series created for children ages 6-10 that teaches scientific and historical facts and events in a dynamic way, pulling that enthusiasm for teaching she learned from Miss Yarbrough. Each segment is one-to-two minutes long and runs in between regular kid’s programming.

“There always needs to be an element of creativity because I think we do a real disservice if we say that if you are creative you can’t possibly live in the other side of your brain, or if you are scientific, you have no sense of humor,” Ivey says. “I think to look at and understand science you have to be creative.”

Soon after beginning Janet’s Planet, she began to do episodes for Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt on health, nutrition and safety.

“Since 2005, we have amassed 10 regional Emmys and five Gracie Allen awards,” she says. “As the spots gained more recognition with parents and children in Middle Tennessee, I started targeting small public television stations, and within short order, Nation Educational Television Association came along and said they would carry them and offer to all 350 plus stations.” Currently, Janet’s Planet airs in nearly 145 local markets across the country.

But Ivey always had a dream of extending it to a half-hour live action and animation show.

“It is all science related,” she says. “We are related to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the universe atomically, but we always have an eye back towards home since, among all the planets we have discovered, this one is the only one we know of that supports life, so let’s take care of it.”

She began looking for an investor.

“So I get on LinkedIn looking for Richard Branson,” she says. “I don’t find him, but I do find a guy named Richard Godwin who was a consultant for Branson’s Virgin Galactic.”

So she emailed him, and he told her she needed to go to the Space Investment Summit in 2008. She was accepting an award that weekend, but sent a friend. Her DVD landed in the hands of Percy Luney, vice president of education for Space Florida.

Within a week, she was boarding a flight at zero gravity in order to help produce a 35-minute DVD about microgravity for Florida classrooms. But before that project was complete, the economy turned bad and funding disappeared. So Ivey finished the DVD herself, won another Emmy and got it in the hands of Buzz Aldrin after standing in line to get his autograph at the Southern Festival of Books.

“As I am standing in line I am flipping through the pages and realize he has flown on the zero gravity plane six times,” she says. She mentioned to him that she had flown on it, too, and after a few minutes of conversation, handed him the microgravity DVD. He gave her his card. She followed up with a painstakingly written letter. Now, she is one of his science ambassadors.

In 2010, she returned to the Space Investment Summit and was one of six people presenting a plan to ask for funding. She still needed an investor to produce her half-hour series.

“There are people there asking for millions of millions of dollars for a commercial satellite, billions for lunar mining,” she says. “And then there is Janet’s Planet with an idea for a kids show on science.”

Sitting front row, just in after performing on Dancing with the Stars the night before, was Aldrin.

“Buzz raised his hand and said, ‘Remember Janet when I called you last fall? Well, I think we need to support things like this,’” Janet says. “He established credibility for me in the room.”

She is still looking for that funding, but has not given up while she does a series of live performances, as well as writing two books and co-hosting Tennessee’s Wildside with Bill Cody.

“People ask if I ever get tired of trying to push this thing through, and won’t I ever give up,” she says. “In the Opryland Kid’s Club I was constantly singing these songs about thinking big and never giving up, so if I stop now I am a hypocrite.”