The Future of Children's Television?
Funny story. I mentioned just before the last ALA Conference that I would be attending a January 16th panel discussion at Marymount Manhattan College on The Future of Children's Television. I've had some time to digest what I heard that night and my thoughts are mixed. On the one hand, the future of children's programming seems secure. The people on this panel were willing to talk about everything from web-based programs, to Flash animation, to the proliferation of preschool television shows. On the other hand, I grew a bit concerned regarding the quality of these future shows, to say nothing of the present.
In a way, it came down to a head to head at several times between two very interesting women. In one corner of the ring you have Alice Cahn. Ms. Cahn is the sort of wry witty woman you just wanna grab a bagel with and chat all night with. A former Director of Children's Programming at PBS and is currently the VP of Programming and Development for the Cartoon Network's preschool businesses. She is also a hoot.
In the other corner, Twila Liggett who created my best beloved, Reading Rainbow. She's done other notable work in her life, but for certain members of my generation, that's really all you need to know. She knows quality children's programming.
Back and forth the two women went on a host of different topics. The place of marketing in children's television was of particular interest indeed. Ms. Liggett admitted that Reading Rainbow should have done more to get their name out there but pointed out that the in-your-face nature of all those gadgets and furbelows marketed to small children these days is a pity. Cahn countered that it was necessary, now more than ever.
Then comes the clincher. First, Ms. Cahn said that you, "can't make a bad choice in U.S. preschool programming", these days. She then announces that Barney was the best thing to ever happen to children's programming. Liggett countered that Barney was the WORST thing to happen to children's television.
Now Cahn's argument, if I heard it correctly, was that because of Barney, network executives saw that children's preschool programming could be incredibly profitable. The chain of events as she described it was Sesame Street to Barney to Dora the Explorer. So what you have now is almost every channel trying to fit the children's program niche. What Cahn didn't discuss, unfortunately, was quality. To my mind, Barney was a throwback. Before Sesame Street, children's programming didn't offer anything for parent viewers. As a result, parents were inclined to plop the fruit of their loins in front of the TV solo and take off to do other things. Sesame Street offered programs of interest to both adults AND children which, in turn, led to family viewing. If family viewing is seen as more desirable than leaving kids alone with only a telly for a friend, then the conclusion one draws is that mindless programming for children is something we should fight against.
Other panelists had equally interesting points to make. Stephen Gass was present and gave a new view. He's the current president of every baby company, inc. "which develops early learning products." And it's not called "baby programming", by the way. It's "Infant Media Space". Oh la la la la. So how are we to deal with people who market products to our babies? Haven't studies shown that exposing babies to television shows may hurt or stunt their little baby brains? According to Mr. Gass (and we must take this with a grain of salt) this is not necessarily the case. As I understood him, Mr. Gass said that there weren't any baby causal studies. Remember that whole theory that if you play Mozart for people it makes them smarter? Not so true, apparently. Gass explained that while not all programming for babies is good, certain kinds can be beneficial. The kicker is the sudden surge in Video On Demand (VOD) these days. Rather than wait around for the program they want, parents are increasingly just purchasing the programs they want to watch, when they want to watch them. This trend is supposed to increase, though it doesn't really take in effect those parents who can't afford to buy baby television whenever the mood strikes. This was a problem I had with much of the panel's discussions, but that's just me.
At one point an audience member asked about future programming. Will more picture books and children's titles be adapted into programming? "Look, we all want to make The Pigeon Steals a Hot Dog." Actual quote. And I suspect that with Mr. Mo's ties to Nickelodeon and Sesame Street that he knows full well what that would entail and has been steering clear of it thus far. Now, on the flip side I was able to overhear audience members before the presentation discussing this very topic. Their take was that networks are going to be less inclined to buy existing characters in the future because they want to own everything. But if a character has an already passionate fan base (as with The Pigeon), I suspect they'd make the occasional exception.
There was also some discussion regarding programming for older children. In a way, it's kinda died. ZOOM was cancelled. We don't have many contemporary Square One, 3-2-1 Contact, or Bill Nye the Science Guy shows available for kids. Now that preschool programming has been conquered, the next step for networks is to get a handle on older kids. What can we offer them?
And what else does the future hold? Panelists speculating on an Emmy category for broadband TV shows, perhaps. Or the $100 laptop, all thanks to Fisher Price. Maybe we'll have more on-demand programming.
The seminar cleared up some questions I'd had but had never really considered before. You know how every single children's movie contains at least one fart or burp joke in the trailer? Ever wonder why that is? Well Mr. Gass explained that the change came when cartoons weren't allowed to crush characters with anvils or chase them around with guns. Potty humor was increased so as to fill that violent void. He assured us, however, that "farting will be out soon." I'm trying to believe him. Remember the Charlotte's Web fart joke in the original trailer?
Then the moderator turns to the panel and asks what television show is currently on that they think is especially good. Crickets couldn't have chirped louder. Oh, Ms. Cahn was able to give not just one but two names, and I think they were indeed very good. She mentioned Peep and the Big Wide World (which my library system owns on DVD). It's a show that has garnered itself an Emmy or two. The other show was Ellen's Acres. If it doesn't sound familiar that's because it hasn't come out yet. For the most part everyone just lamented about the best of the cancelled shows they knew of. A Walk In Your Shoes was a kind of kid-friendly version of Morgan Spurlock's 30 Days. Behind the Scenes took a walk with Penn and Teller to examine the creative process of artists like, "David Hockney, Julie Taymor, Wayne Thiebaud, Matt Groening, David Parsons, JoAnn Falletta, Robert Gil de Montes, Carrie Mae Weems, William Wegman, Allen Toussaint, Bobby McFerrin, Nancy Graves, and Max Roach." It too is gone.
Ms. Liggett, however, was able to also conjure up at least one current remarkable show for kids. She announced that Reading Rainbow was still on the air. The statement was met with tumultuous applause (re: me).
Ronnie Krauss (author of 14 children's books) is currently creating a Nate the Great television series.
Leaving Marymount I met up with a delightful editor from Little Brown & Co. who recognized me. It wasn't until I got home that I realized why. This was a same remarkable woman who passed me the very last hardcover copy of The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin at the ALA Conference in New Orleans half a year ago. Anyway, she gave me the choice bit of information that someone somewhere is currently revamping... wait for it... The Electric Company. That's right. They are updating The Electric Company for a whole new generation. It is, and I don't use this term lightly, genius. Think about it.
And just to end this on the right note of whimsy I shared a cab ride home with two complete and utter strangers. This was one of them:
Honest, it was. Jill Pakulski is a nutritionist, actually, but she has her own show to boot. Here's the website.
The other cab rider had been a writer on several different television shows in the past. She did not divulge the shows on which she worked, but she brought up some significant points. The writer had hoped that the discussion would speak more to web-based programming. If television shows someday all end up free on the web, what does that mean for writers? Currently a writer gets paid every time their show plays on television. Would they get paid every time someone clicked on an online show then, or would they get cut out of the process altogether? It's a serious concern. We also discussed selling shows overseas. My cab partner mentioned that overseas they are more likely to purchase animated rather than live-action shows because it's easier to dub a cartoon than a living breathing person.
Very interesting stuff all around. If anyone attended other programs in the series I'd love to hear how they went.