Published: June 23, 2015 3:44 p.m. ET
Forget Sesame Street. Welcome to Warren’s World.
As in Warren Buffett, the investment guru who chairs Berkshire Hathaway BRK.A, +0.55% and sits atop a $70 billion fortune. Already known as one of the most famous investors in the world, the Oracle of Omaha has become celebrated of late among the grade-school set for his work with the Secret Millionaires Club, an animated program that teaches kids about finance.
In short, there’s nothing quite so secret about the Secret Millionaires Club these days.
Since its relatively low-key inception in 2009, the series has grown to encompass a full slate of “webisodes” and half-hour TV programs (the show has aired on The HUB cable network, now the Discovery Family Channel; a new network partner is expected to be announced soon). Additionally, it has spawned a book, DVDs and “business in a box” kits that help youngsters start their own small-scale enterprises.
There’s also a Secret Millionares Club-affiliated nationwide talent search for budding young Warren Buffetts. The four-year-old “Grow Your Own Business Challenge” attracts entries from as many as 4,000 schoolchildren, who pitch plans for their would-be companies with the hope of winning up to $5,000 in cash prizes and the opportunity to meet Buffett in person.
Buffett says the contest speaks to the true goal of the Secret Millionaires Club. “You’re looking at the future when you look at these kids,” he said in a recent phone interview. But more to the point, Buffett says, children will not become successful, responsible adults without a core understanding of finance. “This stuff is age-old, but it has to be taught. Some kids are lucky enough to get it at home, but a lot aren’t,” Buffett said.
Famed investor Warren Buffett is celebrated among the grade-school set for an animated series that teaches children about finance. WSJ's Tanya Rivero talks to Charles Passy.
Ironically, if there’s anyone who stands to gain — at least financially — from the Secret Millionaire Club’s growth, it’s not Buffett. The show was launched by Andy Heyward, a veteran producer of children’s programming who helped create the “Inspector Gadget” franchise. The connection to the Oracle? Heyward has known Buffett since the early ‘90s and helps produce the popular film that airs before the annual Berkshire Hathaway meeting. So Heyward pitched the idea of the “club” to Buffett, sensing it filled a void in the landscape of children’s programming.
“There are so many shows that promote science and reading. There’s never been anything with financial literacy,” said Heyward.
Heyward initially backed Secret Millionaires Club through his own company, A Squared Entertainment. (The company has since merged with Genius Brands GNUS, -2.38% , another producer of children’s programing, with Heyward becoming chief executive of the combined outfit.) Heyward won’t reveal his exact investment in Secret Millionaires Club, but hints that production costs have easily topped $5 million since the project’s inception. But he adds that the show has been profitable, even if Heyward’s focus remains as much on the educational mission as on making money.
“This isn’t Spider-Man,” Heyward said.
As for Buffett, he has no investment in the project. Nor does he collect a dime for his considerable contributions to the series, which include time spent voicing his own character and volunteering ideas for scripts. So, it’s a labor of love, but one that has special resonance for the low-key mogul, who’s always made education part of his life’s work (he frequently invites college students to his office in Omaha). Buffett even notes that he encouraged Heyward to use “secret” in the show’s title, since it’s an attention-grabber with kids.
“Say the word ‘secret’ and their faces light up,” Buffett said.
But if you’re thinking this “secret” club teaches kids about, say, credit default swaps or asset allocation strategies, think again. Even as it aims to educate about finance, the show keeps things within the general reach of its audience. In each episode, Buffett — well, a cartoon Buffett — meets with a group of children and helps them solve a basic money-related problem of one sort or another, be it where to locate a lemonade stand (“Remember, if the people won’t come to your business, bring your business to the people,” Buffett advises) or how to manage spending (“Credit cards can seem like an easy way to buy things, but it’s not a good idea to make a habit of using them”).
Heyward says Buffett’s folksy approach and delivery — the same “voice,” if you will, that resonates in Buffett’s much-anticipated annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders — is key to the equation.
Buffett “has this homespun wisdom. It’s a very special quality,” Heyward said.
The show has won high marks from education advocates and media critics alike. To quote a review from Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization thats surveys children’s entertainment: “All of the show’s themes can be applied to life as well as to business, so even if your kid isn’t building his own portfolio, he’ll still walk away with some positive and reliable advice about success in general.”
The Secret Millionaires Club doesn’t exist in a vacuum, however. In recent years, financial organizations and educators alike have been pushing the need to incorporate financial literacy into the K-12 curriculum, saying that at time when Americans have to make more decisions than ever before about how to manage their money, many schools no longer offer even the most rudimentary lessons in the subject matter (or what used to be referred to as “home economics”). In its 2013 survey of how states are addressing the issue, the Center for Financial Literacy at Vermont’s Champlain College gave just 20 states “A” or “B” marks for their efforts. (Conversely, it gave 22 states “D” and “F” marks.)
On top of that, the children’s media landscape is changing in ways that allow for producers to address topics in a more focused way: With a growing number of ways to distribute shows — The Secret Millionaire’s Club will soon also be carried on a Comcast video-on-demand service, for example — there’s less of a concern about reaching a mass audience. So, niche children’s programming is becoming more the rule than the exception.
And sure enough, the niches can go well beyond science and reading. Consider: Anthony Weintraub, a veteran feature film writer and director, recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund a pilot for “Yummiloo,” a show about healthy eating. Weintraub said today’s children’s programming is all “about trying to address gaps” not covered by other shows.
Still, not everyone is convinced that a children’s show about money will ever be that successful — or will truly assist in aiding the cause of improving financial literacy. For starters, many education advocates argue that financial lessons are often best taught at home — a point that Buffett himself doesn’t dispute. But on top of that, advocates argue that the classroom offers a more structured setting for such lessons. After all, a TV or a computer can be turned on or off at will.
“I think we need to be doing more on a school level,” said Paul Golden, a spokesman for the National Endowment for Financial Education.
But Heyward counters that schools are increasingly focusing on the common-core basics, so lessons in finance are sometimes viewed as an afterthought. He also notes that through its “Grow Your Own Business Challenge” contest, which is promoted through schools, the Secret Millionaires Club is making an effort to become part of the classroom experience as well.
Given that prospect and the show’s continued growth, could that make Warren Buffett as familiar a face as other cartoon characters? Buffett won’t say if he’s vying to become the next Bugs Bunny, but he jokes that he considers his animated representation a bit easier on the eye than his 84-year-old true self.
“Any cartoon of me is going to look better than the real one,” he said with a laugh.
Buffett can also take satisfaction in the fact that he’s wealthier than any other cartoon character — at least according to Forbes magazine, which publishes its Forbes Fictional 15 list of the wealthiest fictional figures. Among the animated set, only Scrooge McDuck comes close, with a net worth of $65.4 billion. And The Simpsons’ Montgomery Burns? He’s got a mere $9.2 billion to his name, or about one-seventh of Buffett’s fortune.