Fuse #8

Friday, January 26, 2007

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).

Fun Facts:
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.

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At 5:45 PM , Blogger Melissa said...

"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?"

Hear, hear! We go from Barney to Dora to what?? Farting jokes?? There's nothing "educational" out there for older kids; for some reason programmers seem to think that they'd rather have fart jokes. Which may be true.

For the record: my kids loved Zoom, when we watched it. And I loved both 3-2-1 Contact (as a kid) and Bill Nye (as an adult). Bringing back the Electric Company would be cool.

At 5:59 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, managed to keep reading after hearing someone defended the existence of Barney... but recovered and soldiered on to hear the whole deal... Thank God for Reading Rainbow. Casting back to the dinosaur years of my youth, I remember Saturday mornings watching some sort of imported English/European/Asian television show - they would show a different one each week, one time a story about a Japanese kid, another time an Irish rural kid, or a French city kid - at any rate, if I recall they were fascinating because they were windows into other countries and that amazement when young - hey! people are just like me! - does anyone remember anything of this (this recollection just because something updated nowadays would be welcome on the let's let kids understand the world is not just the USA and the alligator guy's daughter....

At 10:37 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Are you talking about Pinwheel? It wasn't Saturday mornings, insofar as I remember, but it did feature television shows and selections from worldwide countries. There was Bagpuss and the Clangers from England and then some Russian dolls and some freaky experiments cut paper images involving noodles (it's weird what sticks). Dunno. Anyone else harbor a guess?

At 11:10 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, this has nothing to do with anything, but that's my building (right behind Strauss Park)!! How weird.


At 12:27 PM , Blogger John L said...

Thanks for the detailed account of this panel discussion, there are so many things to ponder here. I agree that the quality of kids shows is currently lacking, despite (or perhaps because of?) all the money being poured into them. Now that children's TV is big business, it seems like most shows don't last unless they pull in big money with merchandising tie-ins.

A new version of The Electric Company sounds awesome, but can they capture that same magic from the old show? Can they keep the same irreverent wit and silliness that made it so much fun? And what about Naomi?

At 12:53 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

I'm thinking about Easy Reader. As my husband once said, "Morgan Freeman in that role is like liquid sex." So try to contemporize him and things begin to get dizzying.

My only hope is that the new Electric Company has a very small budget. To my mind, the smaller the budget the better the show. But that is not exactly a universally accepted idea these days. Shows that I'm a child of the 80s PBS more than anything else.

At 12:43 PM , Blogger crissachappell said...

I (heart) The Electric Company!!!

At 2:43 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am very picky as to what my daugthers watch as well. I found this great new DVD called The Berries "Friends Like You and Me". This DVD is very catchy and it teaches my girls about different things like Freindship, Colors, and Senses. I just wish the creators would create more episodes but I guess they need to get the word out about the program so they can get sponsorship to create more. Please help this great programming by spreading the word about The Berries. You will not be disappointed.
Concerned Father.

At 2:46 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I purchased The Berries for my boys and they love it. Let help this group out with this project to have something better for kids to watch..

At 12:04 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ellen's Acres has been canceled

Sadly, Ellen's Acres has been canceled by Cartoon Network after only two weeks. If you have not gotten a chance to see the show now's your chance. You will see that Ellen's Acres is highly colorful and imaginative for pre schoolers.

You can watch Ellen's Acres here:

You can watch Ellen's Acres here: http://www.ellensacres.com/watch.php


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