What a remarkable several months it’s been for children’s television!
In March, over 1,500 people gathered in London for the Second World Summit on Television for Children. In June, the Prix Jeunesse international children’s television festival brought 300 producers and program executives to Munich to view and discuss shows from three dozen countries. October means MIPCOM, the premier event in children’s media commerce. Beyond these major events, global, regional and domestic gatherings are proliferating like Teletubbies merchandise.
Industry participation in these conferences has been robust, but executives can’t make a career of meeting-going. The continued health of such gatherings therefore depends on each being sharply defined by unique (but complementary) goals. In this era of niche marketing, success won’t be measured by sheer numbers of attendees, but by getting people to the right meeting to fulfill their needs.
For example, an American Center for Children’s Television survey revealed that many U.S. participants expected the 1998 Summit to be a creative workshop with lots of screenings and hands-on production sessions. Others anticipated more of a marketplace. They left London disappointed.
Summits, by name and nature, should be lofty convocations aimed at fostering a financial, political and intellectual environment in which children’s television can thrive. They should not principally be about the nuts and bolts of producing, though they must grow from a clear vision of what outstanding children’s programs and services look like. Demand for change without an accompanying definition of success is mere and ineffective carping.
Dissecting programs needn’t be central to the summits because it has long (35 years in 1999) been the province of Prix Jeunesse. The festival screenings, diverse in style and content, provide grist for intensely creative discussions. Politics and policy arise only tangentially, usually in a producer’s explanation of a program’s cultural context or content.
Of course, the creative work of Prix Jeunesse is much enriched by the political work at the heart of summits. This year’s festival included several American shows that would never have been made without the educational mandate of the U.S. Children’s Television Act. Seeing and discussing them helps others comprehend the U.S. production climate.
While summits champion children’s right to media that honor their own culture, festivals showcase such programs. Examples from Prix Jeunesse 1998 included a profile of a Filipino child working on a sugar plantation, a Mexican preschool magazine and an Egyptian puppet drama. Not all were prize winners, but each displayed television’s extraordinary power to give children roots in their own land and wings to visit others’.
International sales and co-productions are indispensable in today’s media economy; even the largest countries can’t go it alone. As a result, markets like MIPCOM are not only the financial engine driving children’s TV, but also a key arbiter of what crosses borders successfully. Of course, some programs travel because they have no discernible culture, but others are truly multinational creative partnerships, as well as financial alliances. Both models reveal trends and attitudes that underlie and inform the work of festivals and summits.
In a recent conversation, Children’s Television Workshop president David Britt captured the unique contributions of different gatherings. ‘Summits are about the maintenance of the forest,’ he noted. ‘Festivals are about the health of the individual trees.’ Markets, to stretch Britt’s metaphor, are the fertilizer that keeps the forest growing.
Sometimes politics, production and marketing all come together in one glorious idea. At the 1998 Second World Summit on Television for Children, 26 countries launched a consortium to produce an animated series of folk tales from around the world called The Animated Tales of the World. The concept unites the financial logic of sharing production costs (produce one story; get the rights to all) with a philosophical commitment to TV that celebrates cultural diversity. Countries not in the consortium can buy the series, with profits used to support future summits. In a few years, when these animations begin appearing at Prix Jeunesse, the cycle will be complete: summit advocacy will have given birth to a market-savvy series, produced to global standards of excellence.
David Kleeman is the executive director of the American Center for Children’s Television in Des Plaines, Illinois. He was chair of the Americas Advisory Board for the Second World Summit on Television for Children, and is a frequent consultant to Prix Jeunesse.