Building critical mass through alliances that link studios, broadcasters, marketers, retailers and other promotional partners has become a fact of life in the children’s television industry. Every fall, new promotional campaigns saturate the marketplace, from fast-food restaurants to shopping malls, the Internet and the television itself. It is, as one leading studio promotions executive put it, like a carnival midway, with every campaign inviting children to sample new and returning shows in the fall TV lineup. The following report takes a look at the kinds of fall TV promotions that are launching this year.
That question will be answered when broadcast networks debut programming (see chart page 36) designed to meet the requirements of the FCC’s three-hour educational mandate, which takes effect September 1.
The mandate specifies that stations must air a minimum of three hours per week of regularly scheduled programming between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. that serves the educational and informational needs of children age 16 and under. In other words, gone are the days when stations could claim that The Jetsons is of educational value because it provides insight into future civilizations.
What it doesn’t specify is what qualifies a show as educational. It has given networks the flexibility to develop programs that they feel reflect the spirit of the law.
For networks such as NBC and Fox, the new mandate means business as usual. Those two networks have been airing shows that qualify under the new FCC guidelines for several years. For networks such as CBS and ABC, it has meant retooling Saturday morning schedules.
While programs like CBS’s Beakman’s World and ABC’s Science Court obviously provide an educational element, most FCC-friendly series are less about learning the ABCs and more about developing prosocial skills and values that affect kids’ day-to-day lives.
‘Teachers have told us that values are something that have become increasingly important because children arriving in the classroom are lacking the preparation and socialization skills that previous generations were taught at home,’ says Margaret Loesch, vice chairman of Fox Kids Worldwide.
Each network consults with its own advisory board of educators to ensure that scripts and storylines incorporate educational themes throughout shows. For example, Fox’s C-Bear and Jamal deals with issues such as respect and tolerance. NBC’s Saved by the Bell tackles topics like peer pressure, drinking and driving, and the dangers of smoking. ABC matches educators like Project Zero, a cognitive skills group at the Harvard School of Education, with programs like 101 Dalmatians to build in opportunities to teach kids about thinking through the action of the puppies.
The resulting paper trail gets passed along to network affiliates, which are the parties actually required to comply with the FCC mandate. These reports must be made available to the public and are filed with the FCC on a quarterly basis.
Creating successful programming may not happen overnight. ‘It’s an acquired skill,’ says Loesch. ‘I think we’ll get better at it, but all of us in this industry have a lot to learn.’
‘Our shows don’t have the same goals because kids learn in different ways,’ says Jonathan Barzilay, vice president and general manager of children’s programming at ABC. ‘What’s compelling to one group of kids isn’t necessarily going to have the same effect on a different group.’
It’s taken NBC three years to effectively integrate educational messages into the entertainment storylines of its teen-oriented shows. ‘Our stories now are richer, more developed and have more substance to them while being produced in such a way that the characterizations of the kids are still real and still funny where appropriate,’ says John Miller, executive vice president of advertising and promotion and event programming and supervisor of Saturday morning programming at NBC.
The mandate has inadvertently opened doors for production companies to pitch ideas that previously had no other place to go. ‘The challenge is to find ways to make these shows fun and creative,’ says Lucy Johnson, senior vice president daytime/children’s programs and special projects for CBS. ‘We’re on a journey to discover how much is too much, and how much is too little.’
There’s a basic optimism at the network level that they have risen to the FCC’s challenge. ‘It’s not easy balancing the educational mandate with a respect for the creative vision, and it’s not easy competing when cable doesn’t even have the FCC requirement, but we think that a number of new shows will be long-term players,’ Barzilay adds.
‘The FCC has told us to do our best to make programs educational, and most people are making their best efforts to do so,’ says Miller.
But how long will networks stick with these shows if they don’t deliver good ratings?
Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children’s Television, and one of the key forces behind the creation of the FCC mandate, believes that the law makes ratings irrelevant. ‘It shouldn’t matter who wins the ratings game because the law says they have to do this anyway. It’s designed to reach kids with different messages, not in maximizing profit for a particular program.’
Loesch disagrees. ‘If we’re going to serve children by providing quality entertainment and educational entertainment, it is better for us to get good numbers because then we receive more revenue and can put more money on the screen to do better programming.’
Charren feels that, ultimately, the success or failure of the FCC mandate comes down to the viewing public itself. ‘The good news about the law is that the industry can’t hide what it is doing. But if the public doesn’t respond, that’s when the law becomes a failure. I’m hoping that parents will help their kids find what’s terrific and turn off what’s terrible.’
The FCC-qualifying shows:
(All shows air Saturdays, except where noted)
Saved by the Bell: The New Class
Saved by the Bell: The New Class (Adventure Series)
Hang Time (Adventure Series)
NBA Inside Stuff
Wheel of Fortune 2000
The New Ghostwriter Mysteries
The Sports Illustrated for Kids Show
The Weird Al Show
101 Dalmatians: The Series
Disney’s One Saturday Morning (featuring Pepper Ann, Recess and Brand Spanking New Doug)
The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
The Adventures of Captain Planet (weekdays)
Life with Louie
C-Bear and Jamal
Bobby’s World (weekdays)