The current trend of reality television in U.S. prime time has taken everyone by surprise. Everyone, that is, except the kids entertainment networks and the producers of kids programming.
Long before Regis asked for a Millionaire and Richard became a Survivor, reality programming has been a key component of kids TV schedules, and it’s more popular today than ever. Kid game shows, both the question/ answer and physical endurance types, have been successful enough to warrant their own 24-hour channel (Nickelodeon’s GAS), and producers know that reality-based programs can be the most cost-effective genre.
‘With dramatic series and animation, a pilot is very costly,’ says Joel Andryc, VP of Fox Kids original programming. ‘A reality show is easier to do. You have the ability to do a pilot, so you can see what you get before you order thirteen.’
KidScreen surveyed the current crop of kids reality fare and found a wealth of great programs that don’t get half the attention of their fictional counterparts.
Reality programming with a twist, Blast Off is a one-hour kids docusoap co-produced by Discovery Kids, all arms of the Discovery International network and Brazil-based prodco Giros. The show centers on a multicultural delegation of 14 kids (ages 12 to 14) as they compete to be mission-ready for flight to the International Space Station (don’t worry moms and dads, they’re not really going to be shot into space). Blast Off airs the morning of December 10, right before Inside the Space Station, which documents the progress of humankind’s extraterrestrial colony. These orbiting pioneers are fostering international cooperation and facilitating space-centered research.
Going for a Survivor-like feel, Blast Off will feature a lot of personal vignettes to support the competition coverage-from mundane activities like the kids waking up and slamming down breakfast to more poignant asides about their hopes and fears. There are two teams that compete in order to become one of Mission Ready One or Mission Ready Two delegations. While no one’s going to be kicked off the program, there is a competitive edge to see who is mission-ready first. The show is targeted towards eight- to 12-year-olds.
Blast Off is a global programming initiative set to air on all Discovery Kids services. It will broadcast on the Discovery Channel in the U.S. (launched in 1996), in Latin America (which started in 1996, reaching some 10 million subscribers), India (since 1997), Asia (1997) and in Europe via U.K.-based ONdigital (Discovery distribution started there in February this year).
The global event follows a significant like-minded licensing push with July’s launch of Discovery’s International Consumer and Educational Products Group, which has since signed Copyright Promotions Group in the U.K. to be its European licensing agent.
Discovery’s programming is naturally geared toward world-spanning documentaries, so its no wonder the channel has found a few winners in original reality-adventure series that involve kids first-hand.
Outward Bound takes eight real kids (ages 14 to 15) on a 14-day expedition through some of the world’s toughest terrain. From whitewater canoeing on the Rio Grande to mountain climbing in the Smokey Mountains, the series follows the real-life exploits, the struggles and triumphs, as these kids test their abilities and learn to work as a team.
Real Kids, Real Adventures is a scripted show that dramatically recreates true stories of ordinary kids who survive extraordinary circumstances through remarkable acts of bravery and heroism. ‘These stories demonstrate that there are real heroes and highly dramatic real adventures all around us,’ says Marjorie Kaplan, senior VP of children’s programming for Discovery Networks, U.S. ‘The series is a perfect fit for our unique kids programming block, which captures the fascination of the real world around us.’ In the U.S., Discovery Kids is both a weekend programming block on The Discovery Channel and its own 24-hour channel on digital cable and satellite.
The Disney Channel
‘There’s been a lot of discussion about reality programming lately,’ says Gary Marsh, executive VP of marketing for The Disney Channel. ‘And while shows like Survivor and Big Brother are entertaining, there’s nothing actually real about a prefabricated house being built on the backlot of a television studio, or an obstacle course being set up for 15 people on a desert island in the South Seas.’
‘The distinction I make is that reality television is about holding up a full-length mirror to the world of kids at camp, at school, etc. and reflecting it back as accurately as possible. Kids’ lives are so chock-full of adventure, fun, heartbreak and drama, that our goal is to get that on television without disturbing the balance of their own personal tweenage ecosystems. We try to get out of the way to capture reality as it really is.’
While the Disney name is synonymous with kids fantasy, The Disney Channel has certainly found success with kids reality. Their sports-based reality series Z Games-now in its second season-travels the U.S. taping real kids playing new sports games they’ve created themselves. Kids across the country are adopting these new combo sports, with names like ‘Foosketball’ and ‘Tenibase,’ after seeing real kids play them on Disney.
Bug Juice, also in its second year, captures real-life summer camp experiences through the eyes of a group of teenage boys and girls ages 13 to 15. Douglas Ross of Evolution Film & Tape, the program’s producer, comments, ‘One major reason for Bug Juice’s success is its appeal to people of all ages. It speaks directly to common human experience.’
Disney series Totally Circus takes one of the most popular kid fantasies and presents the reality. Disney cameras follow 37 children selected by the real-life Circus Smirkus as they train in various circus-performance professions with the goal of putting on the greatest show on Earth.
‘These shows are very popular on our channel. We got a tremendous response-letters,
e-mail, calls-asking for more,’ says Marsh. To meet this popular demand, Disney has scheduled Totally Hoops for a January debut. Hoops follows the real-life exploits of the Lady Hoopstars, a group of 13-year-old girl basketball players, through the triumphs and tribulations they experience as a team and individually off the court.
‘In a way, you can say our whole channel is reality programming,’ says Midge Pierce, VP of WAM! programming. ‘A year ago, we launched Caught in the Middle, a series designed to follow real kids in actual middle school and high school situations. It’s become a perfect example of what we do best.’ Shot in cinema-verité style on location at the inner-city Franklin High School in Seattle, Washington, Caught in the Middle presents an intimate, dramatic look at how real ninth graders cope with the transition from middle school to high school.
‘The second season [beginning October 27] was shot at Mercer Island High, an upscale suburban school,’ Pierce explains. ‘This year, we will follow a group of high-tech students who will maintain web diaries, so that our viewers can follow them on-line as well as on-air.’
Reality programming is very popular on WAM! ‘As a commercial-free channel, in between our programs we run short motivational features for kids, for example our Wam-Cam Profiles, which feature ordinary kids doing something extraordinary,’ says Pierce.
Another short feature that’s set to debut November 5 is Table Talk. ‘Table Talk is real families and real kids interacting at a real dinner table, discussing issues of concern to kids.’
WAM!, a 24-hour commercial-free children’s channel from the Encore-Starz group, is dedicated to socially responsible programming. WAM!’s commitment to fresh reality shows continues in Spencer’s Crossing, a Listen Foundation special premiering in November. The program follows hearing-impaired 12-year-old Spencer and his little sister Dea as they train in an attempt to swim the English Channel.
‘Spencer’s family is the first ever to swim the Channel,’ says WAM!’s Pierce. ‘Metaphorically, the family sees it as Spencer’s crossing over from being a hearing-impaired child to one who has overcome enormous odds.’
When asked if WAM! would ever stage its own take on Survivor, Pierce was quick to point out The Tribe, a U.K. teen soap shot in New Zealand, produced by Cloud Nine and commissioned by Channel 5. ‘I have to mention it in connection to Survivor,’ she says. ‘It’s a scripted show, about a band of kids under 18 who live in a world devoid of adults due to an apocalyptic virus that wipes out everyone over 21. They set out to recreate society. For a channel that does so many reality shows, it’s funny that the closest thing we have to Survivor is a sci-fi series.’
Fox Family is entering kids reality in a big way this fall when it debuts Scary But True during its annual stunt The 13 Days Of Halloween. ‘It wasn’t even so much the success of Survivor or the Millionaire show-we just knew that kids love a great ghost story,’ says Andryc.
‘What do kids do when they sit around camp fires? It’s a thing everyone can relate to-cool scary ghost stories. Growing up, every kid has some spooky experiences and encounters, and we said `why not do a show based around this?”
Scary But True combines Goosebumps storytelling with Blair Witch filmmaking, adding the reality element to the mix. ‘Real kids, real situations,’ says Andryc. ‘What we do is send a camera crew out and let the kids tell the story from their own perspective. We interview parents, teachers and townspeople who back up the story. We do a little bit of recreation as the kids are telling the story, insert a few seconds to illustrate the story with visuals. It’s shot verité, hand-held video, with 16mm and 8mm filmed inserts-stylistically done and put together to create a good scary mood.’
Additionally, Fox Family has two upcoming shows aimed at older kids and families that push the reality envelop to extremes. The Scariest Places On Earth, a mini-series premiering October 23, challenges two families, on separate nights, to survive 24 hours in a haunted castle. Hosted by Linda Blair, the two real clans will be whisked from their U.S. homes to northern England, with only the clothes on their backs and some Fox-supplied infrared ghost monitors.
‘In the classic tradition of haunted house lore, we are daring a family to spend a night in the most haunted castle on earth under the camera’s eye,’ says Eytan Keller, executive VP of reality programming and specials. Fox Family received over 100,000 applications from families interested in taking the challenge.
Race Around The World, now in development for a summer 2001 debut, pits two families in a globe-spanning race using every mode of transportation, a set amount of cash and 40 days to complete the task.
‘This will take the reality series concept to the next level,’ says Keller. ‘It will test the family bonds with true human stories of heartache, competitiveness and pressure set against the world’s largest canvas.’
Nickelodeon, Noggin, GAS
Noggin has an original reality series called A Walk In Your Shoes, which takes two kids from completely different backgrounds and switches their lives-physically transplanting them into each other’s environments-while cameras roll.
Nickelodeon’s biggest success with reality comes from its popular game shows, particularly Guts, Figure It Out and Double Dare. In its latest incarnation, Double Dare 2000 is a fast-paced challenge combining trivia knowledge, wacky physical competition and ‘tons of mess.’ Nickelodeon GAS (Games And Sports for Kids) uses Nick’s huge library of kids action game shows, including Global Guts and Wild And Crazy Kids, as well as new short-form programming that includes reality segments about local kid athletes.
Nick’s most popular game is the interstitial block Slimetime Live, which airs each weekday afternoon. Kids can call in to chose a studio audience member to play for the home contestant. If he or she wins, both teammates are awarded a prize. If not, the in-studio partner is slimed. Well, that certainly beats eating rats.