Monthly Archives: November 2011

Here’s why we could do with more relevant local content here in Ireland:

My daughter calls wool ‘yarn’.

She has used ‘you betcha’ instead of a simple yes.

She once called nappies ‘diapers’.

She frequently uses the phrase, ‘reds under the beds’.

Okay, so I made that last one up but, as good as some of the US television is, we may have just a touch too much of it here in Ireland. The balance is a little off. Worse still, the US shows we get are often the least educational because they travel easier when it comes to localisation. We’re likely missing some of the best the US has to offer.

Language is just an obvious symptom. An indicator that a child’s world view is being formed. It actually goes much deeper than language. And it’s important to realise that what seems culturally relevant on the outside might not be on the inside. For example, colouring Barney green and calling him Seamus wouldn’t really make the show any more Irish. It’s just window-dressing. And yet a show with a purple dinosaur in a fantasy world could be culturally relevant to Irish children if the core delivers something needed by those Irish children and presents it in a way that works with the culture and ideals. Culture does not equal window-dressing. We need to look deeper.

It’s not always easy.

But it’s important.

Not just Ireland of course. Every country could do with good relevant local content.

A television show is, in many ways, like new technology. You may have something completely new, be filling a need, have some edge over everything else in a saturated market, but none of that matters if people don’t know about it.

In both television and technology, the value is often in the experience. That’s something that’s very hard to advertise. You can easily tell people about the features of a device, even of a TV show, but the experience?

For that, you need the early adopters.

You need those people willing to take a chance early, who get excited simply by something new, who want to try it out and give it a go. If they like it, those early adopters will spread the word ‘ will tell people about not just the features, but the experience. People who will talk about it, blog about it and let people know what this new thing is contributing to their lives. I can check my Facebook in church! Wow, I’m totally consumed by the mystery of this weird polar bear on the island! And so on.

You need to be good to the early adopters.

In children’s television, it gets very tricky. Young children generally don’t talk about what they’re watching in the same way adults do. If a child just caught the first airing of a show and she loved it, she may tell nobody. The parent might never know and may never put that show on again. So, in absence of that, your early adopters are actually the parents. You need to give them a reason to try it. To take that punt and put it on for their child. Spread it throughout their family. They may even tell other parents – a rare occurrence, admittedly, but it can still happen.

With the parents being early adopters, it’s important to bear in mind their needs. What does a parent want in a television show? What do they want for themselves, and what do they want for their children? These may not be the same thing. What can we do for parents?

Bear in mind the early adopters.

That said, there are ways of getting the children themselves talking. That’s something that can be exploited in a very cynical way, making the parents your enemy in the process – not a great idea in this day and age because, with so much choice, parents are pretty quick to bring down the banhammer. But some shows, just a few (and COSMO is one of them), can get children talking while being really good to parents. Those shows get both sets of early adopters talking, and for the right reasons. If you’re in children’s television, shouldn’t that be our goal?

AimingForZero

Many years ago when I was studying animation, we were given a summer assignment for life drawing – pick some aspect of our work, and improve it. Come back better. When we came back after the summer, the teacher went around the room to find out what people worked on. Most were along the lines of this ‘ I’m really bad at drawing hands so I worked to try to improve that and so I drew hundreds of hands.

That’s a good thing, right?

Sure it is. We could all do at getting better at drawing hands.

But I didn’t draw hands. Or feet. Or anything all that tricky.

I enjoyed drawing my dog, Reg, and I was pretty good at it (even if I say so myself) so I drew more of him. Lots more of him. Now it’s not like I didn’t have plenty of weaknesses to work on. I did. But I enjoyed drawing dogs and, by working at it, I might go from ‘pretty good’ to ‘great’.

And while everyone else was showing less stinky versions of their weaknesses, I showed my strengths. And it set the tone for the year ahead.

So what was the right approach? Well there’s a discussion on goals to be had, but that’s for another post. This post is about the idea that, to get better, the assumption is often that you work on your weaknesses. On first glance, it’s something that seems to make sense. By focusing on weaknesses, those things that might let your work down or might disappoint, you’re trying to eliminate the minuses. Empty that ‘cons’ list on the pros and cons that make up who you are or your work. But consider what number you arrive at if you get fixated on eliminating all minuses…

You arrive at zero.

And the unfortunate reality is that zero impresses nobody. Nobody ever bought anything thinking, well, I suppose there’s nothing technically wrong with it. Zero is nothing.

If you just pick at the negatives (and a lot of people do, often incorrectly calling it ‘constructive’ criticism, as if that’s a contribution – it rarely is), if you worry about what might not work, those rough edges, what might put people off or what could go wrong, you’re aiming for zero. What you need is a positive contribution. Taking that number above zero. Concentrating on what you can add, not eliminate. That’s constructive. And the fantastic news here is that the effort you put into making a positive contribution will have much more of an effect than that same effort being spent on eliminating a negative.

Making a good thing great has much, much more value than making the bad things okay.

Look at the iPod. Audiophiles say the sound quality isn’t great. The iTunes system can be restrictive and the programme hogs resources. Even now, it has some crazy problems that have carried over to the iPhone. Would it be better if these things were fixed? Absolutely. But people aren’t buying the iPod or iPhone because of what it does badly. They’re buying it because of what it does great.

Positives count much more than negatives.

By all means fix those issues that are easily fixed and certainly don’t tolerate any problems you don’t have to, especially in your own systems. But focus should be not on what you can make acceptable, or least offensive, but on what you can make great, fantastic, impressive. That’s how you stand out, that’s how you shine. It’s how you set the tone with your work. And the best thing? It’s much more fun.

Don’t aim for zero. Zero is nothing.

Aim for great.

So much of the violence in the world seems to come from the idea of the pre-emptive strike. It’s about being ruled by fear. The fear that someone wants to harm you makes you want to harm them first. And then they feel threatened and aggressive. And sure enough it looks like they do want to harm you. Your initial fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

And so people die and everything goes to shit. Countries level other countries.

On a far smaller scale, children punch other children in playgrounds.

Part of this is massively reinforced by entertainment that existed long before television ‘ stories of good guys versus bad guys. Absolutely na√Øve and yet still a staple of stories today. Makes for a very easy watch in movies or television. Were the cowboys the good guys and the Indians the bad guys? Every side ultimately sees themselves as the good guy, and so any aggression aimed at someone with opposing views is justified. We kill the bad guys and that makes us good. Hmmm…

But there is more to it when it comes to television.

In studies that began in the ’60s*, researchers gauged the perception of the world and how it relates to television viewing. What they found was a ‘mean world syndrome’ effect. Basically, those who watched much more television were found to be far more afraid of the world around them. To the point where many heavy viewers of television would seriously overestimate crime figures and the risk of them becoming a victim of violence or crime. Not really surprising with all the Criminal Minds, CSIs and so on, is it?

Television viewing can lead to the perception that we live in a more dangerous and mean world (hence ‘mean world syndrome’) in which people can not be trusted, we are in constant danger and we need to take steps to defend ourselves.

And so children punch other children in playgrounds or countries level other countries.

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This is one reason I adore preschool television over other areas of entertainment. So much preschool television reinforces the idea that people can be good to each other, that people aren’t out to get you, that we can help and be helped and that the world can be a wonderful place to live.

I remember reading about a TV conference where someone said that we shouldn’t be sugaring up our children’s television because the world isn’t actually all that nice. Sure, that’s true. And it never will be unless we start believing that it can be and work towards that rather than reinforcing the bitchy, cruel world often depicted in shows for the older kids. Preschool television shows a caring, nurturing, helpful, inspiring, playful, gentle, fun, whimsical, creative and peaceful world. No mean world syndrome. A beautiful world. One I think we’re capable of. Eventually.

Isn’t that something to aim for?

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*(Gerbner, 1970; Gerbner, Gross, Morgan & Signorielli, 1994)