Kids' TV builds a better foundation

There's more choice in children's TV than ever. There's just one problem: The channels are all airing the same shows.

You may be forgiven if you don't know Anne Wood's name. Her biggest fans, and she has millions worldwide, are just learning to pronounce their own names.

Flush from the huge success (financial if not critical) of her "Teletubbies" show, Ms. Wood launches her latest creation stateside next week. "Boohbah," a show for children ages 3 to 6, airs next Monday on PBS stations across the US (it debuted in Britain this past April).

This sophomore effort is being watched closely by critics and industry observers, a fact not lost on Wood. She acknowledges that her latest show offers a high-profile window into the good, the bad, and the challenging in the world of children's television today.

"Children's audiences aren't valued," she says by phone from her production office in England, "and that's true everywhere, not just the United States. The shorter the child in stature, the less the budget they're given for programming."

Compare the average $1 million to $2 million price tag for an hour of prime-time programming. Even animation, the most expensive children's programming, costs roughly half that. Wood, owner and creative director of Ragdoll, a production firm, sees the rise of large media conglomerates as a big challenge to quality programming - especially for children. "If ['Boohbah'] is successful," she ventures, perhaps "it will be the kind of thing that encourages people to take more risks."

Most creative folks in the world of children's TV agree that children's television is at the bottom of the programming totem pole for networks these days. NBC has left the business altogether, turning over its Saturday morning slot to Discovery Kids programs, while ABC runs cartoons courtesy of the Disney Channel, and CBS airs Nickelodeon reruns.

But, perhaps surprisingly, most also agree that, overall, children's programming is in the best shape it's been in for a long time - if for no other reason than the sheer volume of choice. Twenty years ago, children had a handful of shows to choose from, mostly on PBS. Nickelodeon, the first channel devoted to children's programming, launched in 1979. Today, multiple channels are dedicated to children's shows around the clock.

"Kid's programming is better," says Marjorie Kaplan, executive vice- president of Discovery Kids. She points to a shift in program development as the biggest reason for her positive assessment.

"That's due in part to one of the things that I think is the biggest change [in the past decade], which is that producers and networks listen to kids, they constantly talk to kids, they get constant feedback from kids."

Listening to the consumer: kids

When Ms. Kaplan began her TV career two decades ago, advertisers were the main source of information about children, she says. That's not the case today. This attention to children's desires is in large part driven by the ferocious level of competition that has blossomed over just the past decade.

"It's now, 'all kids all the time, 24/7,' " says Deborah Forte, president of Scholastic Entertainment, an independent production company. The volume of children's cable programming has exploded in the past 10 years. In addition, she notes, the industry has gone global. "We see a lot of international influences now in our country on kids' programming, shows migrating from other countries to the states, which was really not the case 10 years ago." The British "Boohbah" is one example, not to mention "Bob the Builder" and Japan's animé-inspired cartoons such as "Yu-Gi-Oh."

Too many shows to monitor

Some parents say all the choices make their job both easier and harder. "I think some parents are actually stricter today because there's so much to watch," says Tod Feuerman of Sherman Oaks, Calif., father of two boys, 11 and 9. But when it comes time to watch, there's something for everyone. "I've got one son who will watch any kind of cartoon, any time. And the other likes to watch the Discovery Channel and nature shows," he adds.

Pressures to compete are behind NBC's decision to fulfill its FCC mandate by partnering with the Discovery cable channel (broadcast networks are required by a 1990 FCC mandate to provide three hours of children's programming per week).

"Cable absolutely has changed the landscape forever," says Lee Gaither, vice president for Saturday morning programs at NBC Entertainment. He defends the decision to lease out the TV real estate, pointing to the vertical integration of the other major broadcast networks several years ago when the decision was made. ABC could tap the Disney Channel's programs; CBS could tap Viacom channels such as Nickelodeon. At the time, NBC wasn't as large a conglomerate. "We looked at our business and said, 'You know, we aren't in a place where we can compete on a real level, so let's find a partner who can.' "

Scoring points for promoting diversity

A new study from the Oakland, Calif., advocacy group Children Now, "Big Media, Little Kids," gives the current state of children's programming a mixed report card. On the one hand, it's content has become richer, says Christy Glaubke, principal associate of Children Now.

"I've seen a big increase in diversity," she says. "We've seen a lot more shows that star female characters, a lot more shows that have characters of different races and ethnicities." She rates Nickelodeon's "Dora, the Explorer" high on her list of shows that do a good job balancing entertainment with social values. "One of the things we've been really pleased with is the rate at which children's programmers and producers are embracing the need for diversity," she says.

But the same study also focused on the impact of media consolidation and found that, as companies consolidate, they tend to duplicate the same programs on various channels, thus reducing the number of original shows being produced: 100 percent of the children's programming on KCBS in L.A. is also broadcast on the CBS-owned Nickelodeon. Another downside is the rise in violent programming aimed at kids, because action and violence translate more easily to foreign markets. Prime examples include animé imports "Pokémon" and "Yu-Gi-Oh!" Even Wood admits that "Boohbah," will be easier to sell internationally because it's high on action and low on dialogue.

Consolidation within the industry

The growing power of fewer companies is bad for everyone, says Robby London, executive vice president at DIC Entertaiment, an independent production company. "I worry about the narrowing of choices and tastes that are making the ultimate decisions," he says. "The number of gatekeepers is getting smaller."

While more potential outlets may exist, the need to establish a global brand limits the types of programs being put on the air.

"The narrowing focus of each of these brands means that if you have, say, a serious live-action show, you won't even try to sell it to Nickelodeon, because that's not their brand," says Scholastic's Forte. "As producers, you are forced to go to fewer people with a project because there are only a certain amount of buyers who are even going to entertain certain kinds of programming."

Wood says she is less worried about the outright bad programming then she is about corporate mentality.

"What you get when you have a world of corporate profits at stake, and lots of risk-averse people, is a rising tide of mediocrity," she says. "You have this sameness creeping in everywhere."

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