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Around the world with kids television

The television set and the dozens of channels it carries have become such an accepted part of North American life that it's easy sometimes to forget that such is not the case in other parts of the world especially when it...
April 1, 1996

The television set and the dozens of channels it carries have become such an accepted part of North American life that it’s easy sometimes to forget that such is not the case in other parts of the world especially when it comes to what children are watching.

David Kleeman, executive director of the American Center for Children’s Television, highlights some of the differences in an article he prepared in advance of the Prix Jeunesse, an annual conference and awards ceremony devoted to children’s television programming. It is being held this year from June 7 to 13 in Munich, Germany. Kleeman is a frequent consultant to Prix Jeunesse.

The following is an edited version of the article, which appeared in the Winter 1996 issue of WATCHWords, the newsletter of the World Alliance of Television for Children.

- Television in the U.S. is primarily an entertainment medium, where the average home receives over 30 channels. The rare child who d’esn’t find something appealing on TV can pop in a videocassette or video game or increasingly log onto the computer. In this environment, a show’s foremost job is to jump out and grab a kid’s attention.

By contrast, every Prix Jeunesse features programs from countries where there are few channels, where the medium is used primarily for distance education or to disseminate national culture, or where production equipment is scarce. As a result, I’ve learned to give greater weight to powerful ideas and stories and respect for children, and less to technical beauty or special effects.

- The U.S. is a huge, rich and (mostly) monolingual nation. Many Prix Jeunesse programs, however, come from places where countries are close together, several languages are spoken, and co-production is an economic necessity as well as a creative collaboration. I have always been excited by shows from the European and Asian foreign exchanges that so successfully cross borders without losing their distinct cultural identity and style.

- Many of these shows are 15 to 20 minutes long, revealing another difference from the U.S. We are firmly wedded to 30- and 60-minute episodes, and there are few opportunities for ‘one-offs’ or limited series. Yet it’s easy to imagine these short programs fitting nicely into a regularly scheduled children’s block, during which kids know they will always find something enjoyable. Could some of our country’s best talent be induced to produce children’s shows, if the U.S. had a showcase for short films or small series?

- The taboos that people bring to the Prix Jeunesse make for very lively discussion. My first experience with this was the outrage expressed by some at the ‘waste of food’ in an American program a few years back. Since then, many late-night debates have been held over whether it is appropriate to show students making fun of teachers, to discuss masturbation, to show a dog defecating on the sidewalk, to show bare breasts, or to include cartoonish violence. More than one person has left a screening in protest or disgust.

- In the U.S., TV was first established as a commercial medium, with a nebulous public service mandate that still sparks debate as to its practical meaning. Many Prix Jeunesse entries come from countries where public service broadcasting was well founded before commercial television was permitted, and where telecasters even the commercial channels have deeply internalized their obligations.

Kleeman can be reached by phone at 847-390-6499 or by e-mail at dkleeman@mcs.com.

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