As the FCC has become ever more strict about educational content requirements over the last decade, Peter Engel and NBC sought the advice of an expert to ensure that their programming complies. Dr. Karen Hill-Scott, a consultant for Nickelodeon and Sony Wonder as well, has been working with Peter Engel Productions and NBC on their TNBC block since 1993.
The stratagem lies in meeting the requisite federal standards yet still producing weekly serials that are compelling to teens. While a network may be primarily concerned with how interesting a topic is and how that interest will translate into ratings, Hill-Scott will look at a script to determine whether there is a message in it for teens, and whether that message speaks to them from their own perspective-not wanting to come at it too heavily from the adult’s point of view. To serve this end, there is a system she refers to as the ‘Three R’s’ that acts as a starting point: Resonate, Repeat, Reinforce. While Hill-Scott does not claim to achieve the balance of being both compelling and didactic with every single episode, this system points one in the right direction.
According to Hill-Scott, other show elements pale if teens can’t relate to the theme and care about the story. Having the story line speak from a teen’s perspective will make teens more apt to listen to the lessons you are seeking to communicate. This lesson, or theme, must be central to the story and should be repeated at least three different times throughout the episode. ‘You cannot introduce a concept and then ignore it, only to revisit it at the end hoping to provide a lesson. That is not educational because there is no arc of learning,’ says Hill-Scott. She points out that a problem does not have to be solved with the end of each episode, but that the resolution must at least be moving in a positive direction. Once a character makes a decision, it is time to reinforce his or her good judgment. Positive reinforcement can be communicated by praise, a sense of satisfaction, or obvious pride that the best choice was made.
The script-writing process never comes down to a seamless science-especially when you have two camps coming at the same story from two different angles: educational and creative. There can be some back-and-forthing, and writers do not always respond to Hill-Scott’s directions literally. In the end, however, a script will conform to at least the spirit of what she has suggested so that it will not only work dramatically, but also have a discernable lesson or message.
The original script of an upcoming City Guys episode that deals with cheating features a cheat sheet containing a bunch of nonsensical questions designed to inject some humor into the story line. Hill-Scott asked writers to sacrifice some of the yuks to add some factual chemistry questions to show teens how important that academic subject is in real life. Hill-Scott received the episode back in script form-without her changes incorporated. She resubmitted it with suggestions of several other areas that could be equally as funny, and the writers then complied.
In terms of an ongoing trend, clothing and body image are broader examples of elements that have changed over time due, in part, to Hill-Scott’s staunch unwillingness to accept portrayals of the average teen girl as a size 4 traipsing around in hot pants and a crop top. Shows now depict girls wearing much more comfortable clothing, and story lines regularly revolve around the female cast members so that they are not simply foils to their male counterparts. Both of these cases represent the gradual shift embraced by the whole Engel team-writers no longer go through the back-and-forth process on a weekly basis because portraying characters in a balanced way is now second nature.