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Kids and TV: What they really, really want

When it comes to breaking down what works on the tube for kids, simply reading the ratings doesn't cut it. For a more comprehensive look at why kids watch what they watch and what they want from their shows, we conducted a series of on-line focus groups with seven- to 12-year-olds, as well as polling the larger Reactorz community to find out what programming characteristics float their boat.
January 8, 2003

When it comes to breaking down what works on the tube for kids, simply reading the ratings doesn’t cut it. For a more comprehensive look at why kids watch what they watch and what they want from their shows, we conducted a series of on-line focus groups with seven- to 12-year-olds, as well as polling the larger Reactorz community to find out what programming characteristics float their boat.

What we found:

No matter how we approached this topic, the message we got from kids came through loud and clear: A good story is absolutely essential. Individual kid viewers certainly expressed preferences as regards genre, format and style, but the bottom-line ingredient for success is still a funny and/or interesting plot.

On the favorite-show radar, live action seemed to have an edge over animation, with both age-appropriate fare like The Amanda Show and adult-skewing sitcoms such as Friends getting a lot of mentions. Live-action shows tend to reflect reality more than cartoons do, and our kid panelists told us quite consistently that they prefer reality to fantasy. Wacky non-human creatures (à la the undersea cast of SpongeBob SquarePants, which also got a lot of kid nods) have their moment – especially when kids are after over-the-top, side-splitting humor. But on a daily basis, kids seem to go for shows that reflect their world in some way.

That’s why even in the realm of animation, our panelists say they gravitate towards ‘natural’ toon styles as opposed to the more stylized Japanese anime look that’s exemplified by Yu-Gi-Oh! and Cardcaptors. Kids still watch anime series, but they report feeling a stronger connection to more realistic-looking toons such as The Simpsons.

When we’re talking about portraying real life, it’s important to note that kids prefer a rose-colored, aspirational reality to an unadorned version. For example, our kids say they’d rather see two-parent, suburban families than single-parent or divorced ones. Interestingly, centering a show around a divorced family was viewed as setting a bad example. Beyond the pure entertainment factor, today’s kids clearly look to television programming to fulfill a role model function as well.

Kids’ penchant for a reflection of real life also dictates what they are looking for in TV characters. Life is complex, so they’re not interested in one-dimensional protagonists that are always good or always bad. But can reality-based heroes still save the day in improbable ways? Absolutely! Some of the most popular kids stories out there today (see Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) cleverly combine fantastical stories with fairly ordinary characters and settings. Our panelists explained that this balance allows them to both relate to the characters and be entertained by the plot.

Kid Insight: As kids TV trends come and go, one constant necessity is a funny or interesting concept that reflects their world in an aspirational way. Fantasy firmly rooted in reality will catch their attention.

The topics explored in this monthly column are generated by the members of Reactorz, the youth-powered research engine of Big Orbit Inc. that helps companies find out what kids and young people ages seven to 22 are thinking, feeling and talking about. For more information about how Reactorz Research can help your business, please visit www.ReactorzResearch.com or contact Sean Bittle or Kelly Lynne Ashton at 416-516-0705 (by e-mail at business@reactorz.com).

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