In the US as far back as 1979, the FTC was calling for a ban on all advertising during blocks targeted at children younger than twelve years of age. Junk food advertising was a particular concern.
Just a few years ago, in the UK, there was move to ban junk food ads targeting children. And for a while now, TV chef personality Jamie Oliver has had a strong campaign to get children eating better food in schools. I gather that hasn’t gone down all that well in the US (and have read speculation that it’s simply down to the idea that the truth hurts). Nevertheless, whether people want to hear it or not, concerns about junk food and children’s health come up time and time again.
But the thing is, children love junk food.
They really love it.
So… shouldn’t we just let them have it?
I’m guessing most will answer no. Unless you own a McDonalds franchise, in which case you’re probably shouting a big McYes! But some of us, especially parents, don’t want children just to indulge themselves.
Because it’s not good for them, is it?
Just because they like it doesn’t mean they should have it.
As a parent, I feel it’s the same for children’s television. The television model has traditionally existed to feed children what they want. Ratings are everything and, understandably, few broadcasters want to put up the TV equivalent of broccoli up there on screen.
And yet indulging the desire for junk food television can in no way be a good thing. As it happens, there are quite a few good shows out there, especially in preschool. And there are many more really entertaining shows that, personally, I’d call ‘neutral’. But it would be great if we could all strive to make the healthy alternatives a little less alternative and work towards making them the norm.
I’m a big fan of marketing guru Seth Godin‘s words of wisdom. Because, while Godin’s area has been called marketing, I think his words are more about general life. Probably one of the reasons he’s so popular ‘ most of what he says can be applied to just about anything.
And much of what Godin says about marketing is that, really, your product is your marketing.
This recent post of his hit home - read it here (it’s short). This little gem says so much that is relevant to anyone in children’s entertainment, especially those indies or people struggling out on their own. We all know it’s a saturated market. We’re still here, but we know that, really. And many of us, after seeing so many shows that make it and so many that don’t, hit a point where we realise the hard truths about the work we create…
Got a fun show? Who cares? There are thousands of fun shows.
Got a show with hilarious characters? Great. So has everyone else.
Great design? Nice. That’s a bonus but it’s nothing to get excited over.
A show on the cutting edge of a trend? Too late. If it’s a trend, you missed it.
The world is full of funny, happy shows with great characters. If any one of these things is your selling point, the unfortunate truth is, the world doesn’t need your show. Or my show. The whole industry could shut down today and children would never run out of shows to watch.
That doesn’t mean shows without something really new won’t do well. Many people in the chain will be looking at what did well before and make positive decisions based on that. It’s flawed, but it happens. In fact, many of the big companies will be doing just that because, with shareholders, they’re usually looking for the ‘safe’ option, especially now. And the big companies will have the budget to push hard, give away the right deals to get air time, shelf space and so on. To a certain extent, they can make a hit.
The small people, on the other hand, can’t compete.
But, as a result of that, the small people, the indies, actually find ourselves with an opportunity.
We don’t have shareholders to please. We don’t have teams of advisors telling us what the market wants based on information on what once worked.
We have freedom.
We can act and adapt quickly.
We have the ability, the need, to take risks.
We have passion.
But what we absolutely have to have, is something special. Something that delivers to children something they need. Something beyond fun, or nice characters, or action. This is an opportunity to create content that is really good for children.
As Godin says, “the challenge is to be edgy and remarkable and to have the market move its center to you”.
The children’s entertainment world has spent the last ten years looking for the next Dora or the next Spongebob, all while missing that what made Dora and Spongebob special is that they weren’t really the next anything.
I picked up a children’s DVD recently and had a look at the back. At the bottom, it read ‘Language: None’.
I took a moment.
Okay, it meant no bad language. But to me it said much more and I was immediately brought back to Paddington Bear, the Mr. Men and, of course, Grange Calveley’s wonderful Roobarb.
Children’s entertainment with a love of language.
Grange’s words are lyrics. Richard Briers turned them into song. And children, as we know, love songs. Roger Hargreaves clearly loved language. People often cite the Mr. Men as an influence when they see Fluffy Gardens and they’re not wrong. But it’s not the anthology nature of the Mr. Men that inspired me. Not even the simple look.
It’s the love of language.
It seems to be a rarer thing in children’s television these days. In some shows, language barely has a place. But, perhaps more surprising, it’s not all that common in children’s books either. Books for younger children often seem to rely on a repeated hook. A phrase or simple idea that appears from page to page.
That’s also musical and not a bad thing in itself. And many, without a doubt, are immensely entertaining. But it can sometimes feel like the 2 Unlimited or Vengaboys type music rather than, say, Pink Floyd.
The lyrical story with asides, flowing sentences and beats are harder to find. And unfortunately, many children’s stories I have found that hark back to more traditional forms just aren’t all that good. I often wonder if they ever read them out loud. That is, after all, how a children’s story will be read. Having a parent trip over words or have to pause to make sense of an upcoming line is a bad sign.
Richard Briers never once tripped over Grange Calveley’s words in all our recordings of Roobarb & Custard Too. By writing my stories out loud, I hoped Michael Maloney wouldn’t when performing Fluffy Gardens either. I wasn’t always as successful. I’m not saying it’s easy.
But I love language.
More importantly, I see that children love language too. The next time I pick up a children’s DVD, I would love to look at the back and see written, ‘Language: Beautiful’.
How to represent reality was something I wrestled with early on when developing COSMO.
I’m not a big fan of lying to children. Not my thing.
But television lies are a messy issue. Take Fluffy Gardens as an example. Animals all living in houses and talking to each other. That doesn’t happen. That’s a lie. But… the characters can’t do anything a real person can’t do. Physics works as it does in our world.
I remember in one episode, it was suggested by someone that a cardboard robot made by Stinky the Skunk come to life.
No, I thought. That would be a lie.
Because children can’t build a robot from cardboard and have it come to life. They may eventually own their own houses, on the other hand. So I felt I was showing a grounded, truthful world even in the context of talking animals.
It gets much more difficult when you actively want to get across something real in a world that can spark a child’s imagination. Real learning.
For example, one show teaches Spanish words brilliantly. My girl could count from one to ten in Spanish at the age of two and a half. Fantastic. But that show teaches these real Spanish words in a world with unicorns, grumpy old trolls and so on. And, as if that wasn’t confusing enough, constantly crosses over with another show that aims to teach real facts about animals.
What happens later in life?
So I know unicorns aren’t real. Grumpy old trolls? Nope. And you honestly expect me to believe that Spanish is real? Not buying it. Show me one person that speaks Spanish. What? Juan speaks Spanish? No way! Juan in accounting? Wow. Seems kind of pointless. I mean, who does he speak Spanish to? Seriously? Whole countries? I had no idea. So… does that mean unicorns are real? No. Oh. So, if Juan speaks Spanish, who speaks Klingon? Klingons. Oh. I thought they spoke Latin. No, no, go back to the unicorn thing…
And so on.
Okay, so that’s probably unlikely. But it does seem muddy to me when the distinction isn’t made between real or not real. Fantasy? Magic? Not a problem. I’m all for it, in fantasy worlds. It’s in the cross-over that it all gets tricky.
With COSMO, I want a show that features real information on the planets. But I want children to be able to enjoy the show with absolutely no prior interest in space. So the show has to entertain, first and foremost. To quote David Connell, first Executive Producer of Sesame Street, “you’ve got to get them into church before you can preach to them.”
Story wise, I can’t spend seven years getting the characters to Saturn.
And another seven getting them back again.
That wouldn’t work.
To make it even trickier, what we know about the outer planets is more limited than what we know about the inner planets. And what we know about those outer planets would be very difficult to represent in a way a very young child could understand. Even those inner planets still contain many mysteries.
So COSMO uses many science-fiction staples ‘ fast ships, artificial gravity, not melting instantly close to the Sun and so on. And COSMO also has to take some liberties and leaps in representing those planets, especially when it comes to the outer planets.
How do I avoid the Spanish language/unicorns trap?
How do I do this and NOT lie to children?
If only we could just say to children, look, we can’t zoom from planet to planet like this but these core facts you’re learning about the planets are absolutely real. Well, actually, we can do that. That’s exactly what we do.
COSMO will feature, in its information segments and at the very end of every episode, a real astronomer who will say to children, this is just a show and nobody has landed on Mercury yet but, man, these specific things are real! They’re actually out there. Isn’t that absolutely mind-blowingly amazing?!
And, you know what?
I think when children consider that there are worlds out there to be explored – real worlds ‘ their imaginations will be ignited far more than with any fairies or unicorns.