Reality programming for kids has been all the rage during the past few TV seasons, thanks in part to new broadcast outlets for the genre cropping up, such as Fox Family Channel and Discovery Kids. Kids producers have seized the opportunity, offering sometimes traditional, sometimes cutting-edge programs in the non-fiction vein. The following are some examples of what’s happening in kids reality programming.
This comedic kids nature show is well past its 50th episode and still going strong on 330 PBS stations throughout the U.S. Kratts’ Creatures has racked up a shelf full of awards, acclaim and accomplishments-including, most recently, the National Wildlife Federation’s Outstanding Achievement Award-for its co-creators and hosts, brothers Chris and Martin Kratt. Partnerships with Wendy’s, Jack in the Box, PolyGram Video, Scholastic and Equity Toys have also made it one of the most high-profile kids shows on public television.
‘I think that kids love to learn,’ says Chris Kratt. ‘The issue of education versus entertainment doesn’t make much sense to Marty and I, because they’re not mutually exclusive.’
‘Our show mixes drama and documentary-it’s not straight documentary. Any audience can latch on to a story, so there’s a storyline in each show,’ says Chris Kratt.
The show is targeted to kids age eight to 12, however, adults have proven to enjoy the show as well. ‘We found that the Kratts’ Creatures range is much broader than we had thought,’ observes Chris Kratt. Addressing the strong preschool audience the show attracts is the aim of a new spin-off, Zoboomafoo, which is in production.
‘I actually bought it and we financed it from the idea stage,’ says Rich Ross, senior vice president of programming and production at Disney Channel, of the channel’s original reality series Bug Juice, which launched last month (the show is co-created by Douglas Ross and J. Rupert Thompson). Ross saw an ‘untapped opportunity’ to reach the nine to 12 demographic with a slice-of-life, ‘real kids’ series that had an edge without being inappropriate for the entire family. Topics like arriving at camp, playing Frisbee, arts and crafts, canoeing, sailing, archery and the like are described by the young teen campers in unrehearsed, sometimes stream-of-consciousness narrative.
The 18-episode series has been compared to the discontinued dramatic series My So-Called Life in its tone and target audience. Yet, as Ross points out, ‘the difference is this is genuine. Kids say it themselves. Shows like Dawson’s Creek are written by adults.’ The formula has attracted a great deal of press coverage, and some are even calling it a new genre. Rather than being educational in a traditional sense, the series aims for what Ross calls ‘social learning.’
‘We’ve created a promo campaign entitled `Bug Juice: Our Summer Camp,’ in which kids’ experience was layered in. Some kids wrote in their journals or at creative writing class; some shot videos or photos,’ says Ross. The depiction of experiences in kids’ own voices is the series’ most distinctive stamp.
Disney Channel’s other non-fiction offerings, nature shows Going Wild with Jeff Corwin and Omba Mokomba, are more along the lines of the traditional, education-oriented documentary, says Ross.
Nick’s news show airing during prime time on Sunday nights features two segments six to seven minutes long per show. Host Linda Ellerbee disputes the common wisdom that kids ‘have the attention span of tsetse flies.’ Rather, since most kids spend more time in front of the television than in school, Ellerbee ‘uses TV to make them feel good about wanting to know things.’ Nick News also produces occasional one-hour specials on topics such as divorce, or interpreting urgent current events for kids, as in the case of the special on the Oklahoma City bombing. ‘We always emphasize that there is more than one answer, encourage them to question everything,’ she notes. In addition to hard news, each show features four-minute segments on arts and a funny segment entitled ‘Who’s in Charge?’, during which ‘grown-ups are shown screwing up,’ says Ellerbee.
Mega Movie Magic
The highest-rated show on Sunday’s Discovery Kids lineup, Mega Movie Magic from GRB Entertainment goes behind the scenes of movie making to introduce kids to the world of special effects. GRB president, CEO and executive producer Gary Benz-currently in discussions with Fox Family Channel and others to produce more documentary programming for kids-attributes the renewed interest in kids reality to the ‘proliferation of non-fiction around the world’ and to new kids channels. ‘Reality [is] cost-efficient as opposed to other kids programming like animation, which is expensive,’ he notes.
‘We’re taking stuff that is really complicated and making [kids] understand it,’ says Mega Movie Magic producer Tracy Verna. The kids series has the same subject matter as Movie Magic, an adult-targeted show GRB produces for Discovery, yet it’s not just a reversioning, but a wackier, humorous take on the subject. For instance, in one segment, a 12-year-old girl turns into a 95-year-old woman with the help of a famous movie makeup artist-then the girl is taken around town, where she shoots hoops with the neighborhood kids, who believe that she really is an old lady.
The existence of the higher-budget ‘parent show’ allows producers to piggyback the shooting of both shows. This cost-cutting tactic is critical, as licensing fees for a kids show are often only half of what adult shows are paid. ‘You get very resourceful,’ says Dan Arden, supervising producer, noting that writers also tend to work for lower fees because they like the creative freedom involved.
‘Kids really pick up on seeing other kids trying stuff,’ says Kevin Brauch, producer, co-creator and host of the TVOntario non-fiction program Stuff. Produced by TVOntario, the show goes out into the field to explore popular and offbeat events and activities in sports, the arts, science and nature. Kids in the show aren’t ‘spruced up’ too much or overly prompted, says Brauch, giving the show an ‘it could be me’ feel for kids. While the hosts are adults, they play the role of ‘cool teacher,’ according to Brauch. ‘We don’t pretend to be kids, but we’re not the same as adults in their eyes.’
As the show enters its second season, Brauch’s focus is to continue to really make it kid-driven. ‘We’re taking the hosts out of the spotlight a bit and making the kids the stars of the series.’ He notes that this decision was made in response to input from kids, who always expressed the most interest in segments during which kids performed the key activities. The show will be sold at MIP-TV for the first time this year, and Brauch reports that interest has already been expressed from a number of U.S. and U.K. broadcasters. ‘It will be interesting to see the feedback from the internationals,’ he notes.
Kids reality is ‘a growing formula, proving that even a kid’s short attention span can abide factual material,’ says Tony Masur, producer/director of Just Imagine, a syndicated kids reality show airing on key WB and Fox affiliates. The show, produced by Flying Tomato Films in North Hollywood, California, explores career options open to kids in an upbeat, comical tone.
However, the fact that the genre is working for kids doesn’t negate the tremendous problems small independent producers face. Masur notes that stations often place FCC-friendly kids shows in slots such as 5:30 in the morning, for which very low licensing fees are paid. ‘Stations prefer to run infomercials rather than FCC-friendly shows,’ says Masur. ‘FCC shows are the `teachers’ of the entertainment industry. They’re underpaid, whereas the private sector gets all the money,’ he says.
Burgeoning cable outlets are little help, according to Masur. ‘When Discovery does produce programming, they spend their money in prime time,’ he says. As a result, small shows like Just Imagine only make up 35 percent of revenues in broadcast, covering additional production costs through international sales, home video sales and specialty sales to schools and libraries. ‘Using four or five different ways of selling, we’re able to break even,’ says Masur.
Producer Paul Tyler says the BBC kids documentary show Blue Peter has been on the air since 1958, and thus has established itself as ‘part of the fabric of British children’s TV, with tremendous audience loyalty.’
‘We try to produce the most exciting TV possible, by making our content a mixed bag,’ he notes. The show, which adheres to a very strict budget, features a content-driven focus with adult presenters. Popular regular features are the gardening and arts segments, offering kids projects they can do at home.
The Media Merchants’ hit show Art Attack capitalizes on both the talent and the charisma of a central presenter, Neil Buchanan, who admittedly has never had an art lesson in his life. The multi-award-winning art show is currently in its 10th season on ITV in the U.K.
The show features offbeat art lessons that are conducted on location and in the studio. For instance, one regular segment entitled ‘The Big Picture’ goes on location to places where Buchanon creates works of arts out of the materials on hand. For instance, he fashions a Robin Hood sculpture in the woods out of bark or a boat out of rope. The show also tapes at a different school each week, featuring children holding up their art projects and describing how they were done.
Popular Mechanics for Kids
As it enters its second year, this syndicated show distributed by Hearst Entertainment proves that the demise of the magazine-based kids series Sports Illustrated for Kids was a blip rather than a trend. ‘We’ve gotten a lot of terrific feedback on this show,’ says Jerry Shevick, senior vice president of reality programming at Hearst Entertainment. ‘We make sure that the kid is involved. Nothing we do has the kid as the spectator.’
The show’s hosts-a boy and a girl-are both 15, and are involved in each segment exploring science and technology. For instance, in one episode, the hosts spend the night on an a nuclear submarine at sea. Another features the teenage girl host flushing a Ping-Pong ball down the toilet, then tracking it through the sewer system. ‘We let them do it. We try not to have a expert explain, but let the kid tell it in his language,’ says Shevick.
As for keeping topics interesting to kids, Shevick notes, ‘you really have to be careful and keep checking in with kids about whether something is interesting to them or not. You really can’t presuppose what is going to work for kids.’
In this report:
- Kids reality shows sell ‘edutainment’
- They’ve got the whole world in their plans
- Local programmers emphasize local character
- Sonic Underground
- Bob Morane
- The Myth Men: Guardians of the Legend
- Mumble Bumble
- Fix & Foxi
- Princess of the Nile
- MIP-TV Roundup