Studio system

Day care is a big perk for Hollywood studio executives

When Bridget Baker, president of NBC Universal Television Network Distribution, had her third child, she realized that she and her husband were officially outnumbered. Although she had previously relied on the services of a nanny, "my house was going topsy-turvy," she recalls. "I thought, 'What do people do? I've got to think. What's going on here?' And it was like, 'Oh, day care!'"

For Baker and many working parents, the on-the-lot child care offered by the major studios allows them to balance the demands of two of the most challenging jobs out there: mother and executive. "The primary goal was to give (employees) a personal service or a perk or a benefit that would allow them to be able to focus on work and give them a convenience at the same time -- to give them some comfort that (their children) were going to get quality care," says Kesa Tsuda, the head of human resources at Sony.

Only a few decades ago, this benefit wasn't available to working parents. Paramount started the first on-the-lot facility in October 1986, while Fox greeted the new millennium by opening their Child Development Center in January 2000.

Today, Paramount, Universal, Sony and Warner Bros. all have facilities operated by Bright Horizons, the country's largest work-site child-care provider. Bright Horizons more than meets the standards of excellence set by the National Association for the Education of Young Children -- and the even more rigorous standards of the parents who use its services. The NAEYC-accredited Fox Child Development Center features individualized curriculum from the education and training department of the Knowledge Learning Corp., and Disney has an internally run day-care facility.

All of the studio day-care centers are open from Monday through Friday from approximately 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Child care is available for infants (as young as 6 weeks old, at some studios) through the beginning of kindergarten, and the children are divided into age groups. In accordance with state regulations, the caregivers all have earned at least 12 early childhood education units, and the adult-child ratios are always low -- 1-to-3 for infants, 1-to-4 for young toddlers, 1-to-6 for 2-year-olds and 1-to-8 or -9 for preschool. At almost all of the studios, the heavily subsidized fees are based on a sliding scale according to an employee's pay grade and sometimes the age of the child. The cost amounts to only a fraction of the salary of a private nanny.

As basic and straightforward as these services might seem, the parents who rely on them know that they are not to be taken for granted. "When you're a working person, these school schedules play havoc with your life," says Baker, whose children are now ages 10, 5 and 2. "You have summer and spring break and teacher in-services and all the holidays. And usually preschool is a 9:30ish-to-1ish kind of thing. So if you're a working person, those hours don't work for you. These private schools -- and believe me, I know -- call your home phone number at 11:07 a.m. on a Tuesday and leave a message. And you get this reality check that the outside world (doesn't understand). What do they think is going on here during the day with working parents and balancing careers and all this?

So here at beautiful Bright Horizons, everything is about making the parents' lives easier and providing the parents with peace of mind and, at the same time, creating this amazing kid-friendly environment."

Because the on-the-lot child-care centers are designed to accommodate the schedules of busy executives, even special events, parades and festivals are planned with regard to when studio employees would likely be able to attend. For instance, the Halloween Imagination Day Parade at Universal is held at 5 p.m. and lasts only 45 minutes so that parents will be able to get away from the office, while the Harvest Festival takes place on a Saturday.

This explains the high demand and long waiting lists that exist for all of the studio day-care centers. "Sadly, this is the only drawback of this great company benefit," says Diane Nelson, president of Warner Premiere and mother of two sons ages 8 and 3. "I called to get on the list the day I found out I was pregnant with my first child -- before I told my parents! -- and the timing cycle worked out such that Charlie was admitted at 6 months. There is a policy of 'sibling preference' subject to availability, from which we benefited when Charlie's younger brother, Christopher, was born. There is absolutely no preferential treatment for executives or weighting of candidates based on seniority." Even though most studio day-care facilities can cater to at least 90 children, Nelson's experience is typical of all the studios, where the waiting lists for the infant groups tend to be especially long.

But for most parents, it's worth the wait. The advantages of on-the-lot care extend beyond practical conveniences into more emotional territory. An open-door policy allows parents to drop by whenever they can grab a moment during the day to read their child a book or lie down for a few moments during nap time.

"The main thing is it's such a great, comforting opportunity to have this available to me on the lot -- to be able to leave home with her in the morning and drop her off and know that she's in such close proximity to me," says Alexandra Koch, who is senior vp feature production management at Paramount and the mother of a 2-year-old daughter. "I can go at any time during the day and check on her and see how she's doing. Or I could take her to lunch, or if she gets sick, it's very quick for me to be able to pick her up and take her to the doctor. Some mornings, I'll bring her into the office with me, because I just want to spend a little more time with her. It makes being at work so much easier."

Bright Horizons even keeps a journal for each child, complete with pictures and descriptions of the day's activities, so that parents can stay current on any news and developments. Then, on weekends, the parents write in the journal to update Bright Horizons about any Saturday and Sunday activities. "There's just this discourse of their lives," Baker says. "It's amazing. The teachers can put things like, 'Rhett, we had a new friend join us -- Juliana. She was crying and missing her mom, and you went over to her and took her hand, and you two danced.' I'm crying talking about it! 'Here's a picture of you dancing, and what a kind friend you are.' You know, it's developmental. It shows me that I missed this moment, and here it is in a photograph."

Many mothers believe that this kind of early socialization and peer learning is healthier for children than one-on-one nanny situations. "They offer tremendous stimulation for the kids all day, every day," says Nelson. "From regular sit-down meals and snacks to story time, outdoor time, music programs, water play during warm weather and special weekly events like the 'Tumblebees Bus' visit, the kids get incredible structure and consistency, along with a great variety of activities that keeps them from becoming bored. This was the single biggest reason we opted for day-care rather than stay-at-home care. To know that our children are safe, nearby and stimulated, without worry of their being put in front of a TV for hours on end or left along while a caregiver is occupied with other things at home is a huge source of comfort."