David Kleeman is executive director of the American Center for Children’s Television in Des Plaines, Illinois. He is a frequent consultant to Prix Jeunesse and a founder of the World Alliance of Television for Children.
Every other year, Munich becomes the world’s children’s television capital during Prix Jeunesse, an international festival and conference.
Prix Jeunesse is a conference and awards ceremony devoted to children’s television programming from countries where there are few channels and the medium is used not only for entertainment, but for distance education and dissemination of the national culture. Many Prix Jeunesse programs come from countries where several languages are spoken and where co-productions are an economic necessity. In June 1996, over 350 producers, directors, writers, executives, researchers and advocates screened and discussed 84 shows.
With only a week together, participants don’t waste a minute. When the formal sessions ended, informal swapping of ideas carried on late into the night. Straight from Munich’s biergartens, here are reflections on the big world of kids TV.
Don’t tell the kids they’re learning…The next person who says TV can’t educate and entertain should be sentenced to watch the festival’s highest-rated program: the BBC’s brilliant It’ll Never Work. This round-the-world survey of wild inventions (scuba gear for dogs!) inspires thousands of children to send in their ideas; the best are built and demonstrated on-air.
Latin beat…Prix Jeunesse efforts to encourage more Latin American entries paid off, as two Brazilian shows (Confessions of An Adolescent: The First Kiss and The Boy, the Slum and the Pan Lids) and one from Peru (Escape on the River) caused the loudest hallway buzz. Widely different in style and substance, the programs are linked by three threads: all are relatively low-cost efforts; each draws deeply from its own culture, but ‘travels’ well because of a universal theme; and the stories are what plenary moderator Dale Kunkel called ‘spirit-driven,’ rather than ‘market-driven.’
Short, but not small…Would anyone tell book authors to make every work exactly 217 pages-to stretch short stories and slash epics? Of course not. Yet, most television is made in 30- or 60-minute lengths. Prix Jeunesse celebrates tales that are allowed to find their natural length. The Brazilian program The Boy, the Slum and the Pan Lids packs a complete, compelling, rewarding story into just five minutes, with no dialogue or narration.
Such tiny gems reveal the wisdom of a flexible children’s block that can accommodate a variety of programs: short and long, drama and non-fiction, animated and live action.
Strong, silent types…Several successful stories with no dialogue brought into sharp focus how many shows overuse dialogue at the expense of action, or let narration replace character development.
Several producers and writers of programs without words suggest that every writer practise creating such stories; they find it reduces their dependence on dialogue in all their works.
Cookie-cutter kids…It’s well past time to tear out the section in the ‘kids TV bible’ that says every drama must feature a multicultural group of children that includes a cool boy and a feminine girl who admires him, a fat boy who snacks constantly, a smart girl, who saves the day with her ingenuity, and, of course, one disabled child (personality not required). The Prix Jeunesse term for such predictable, formulaic programs-which look and sound alike, no matter what their place of origin-is ‘McDonald’s television.’
More questions than answers…By contrast, the competition’s non-fiction categories featured several documentaries with strong points of view on important topics, including whale hunting, rights of the disabled, and South African race relations.
Some participants questioned whether ‘unbalanced’ programs are appropriate for children, reigniting perennial Prix Jeunesse debates: Do we trust young people enough? Can we challenge them to question and interpret a show with a strong point of view? Is it possible to introduce children to world issues without editorializing? Do we object to strong opinions only when they don’t match our own? Will trying to balance every show reduce television to oatmeal?
The next generation…With the first profits from its new, successful merchandising, Danish public broadcaster Danmarks Radio brought 17 people to Prix Jeunesse, of all ages and positions. Children’s department head Mogens Vemmer said he made this extraordinary commitment because, in tough times, his best investment is in developing his young talent.
Vemmer’s commitment to the future led many Prix Jeunesse ‘old-timers’ to question whether we’re all doing enough to recruit, train and inspire the next generation of children’s television creators. While Prix Jeunesse is known foremost as a cultural crossroads, it is also a great venue for generational exchange-seasoned professionals furnish tradition and experience, while young creators bring fresh vision and energy. Attending this ‘market of good ideas’ provides professional renewal for senior managers and a career kickstart for newcomers.
A special session at Prix Jeunesse celebrated three series that have lasted more than a quarter-century-Children’s Television Workshop’s Sesame Street, BBC’s Blue Peter and WDR’s Die Sendung Mit Der Maus. Watching them, it was impossible not to wonder where the ‘long-runners’ of 2021 will come from. Fortunately, it was easy to imagine that they will be the vision of some young program-maker who, in 1996, came to Munich for a first helping of information, inspiration and imagination.