It may be the irony to end all ironies that TV could play a key role in improving the unhealthy lifestyle of some Western children. After all, the U.S. Surgeon General singled out the excessive amount of time kids spend watching the tube as one of the main reasons why the U.S. child obesity rate has ballooned in the last decade. But irony aside, kids TV producers have sensed the heat surrounding this issue and are starting to incorporate healthy living/eating messages into their kid-targeted series.
‘Establishing the right motor skills early on creates a foundation for lifelong learning and fitness,’ says Barney co-creator Kathy Parker, whose McKinney, Texas-based Marsupial Media’s new preschool series Pockets ‘N Play aims to do just that. Developed with the aid of child development experts, Pockets (26 x half hours) stars a costumed character who uses visual and musical cues to invite kids to do simple exercises such as jumping and swaying. ‘Programs like Blue’s Clues are great for teaching problem-solving skills, but the niche that’s not being addressed right now in TV is movement for children,’ says Parker, who’s currently scouting for co-pro partners.
Ragdoll’s Boohbah was designed specifically to get kids off the couch. The 104 x 20-minute series, which began airing in the U.K. on GMTV and CiTV in April, stars five sparkling atoms and explores movement and control. In every ep, real kids control the flow of the show by calling out the magic word Boohbah, which gets the creatures to perform dance and exercise routines. Ragdoll carefully researched all the movements to ensure that the show’s three- to four-year-old target demographic would be able to do them as well.
Part of the inspiration for Boohbah came from Ragdoll’s direct-to-video exercise title Teletubbies: Go! Its quick rise to become 2001′s number-two Tubbies video alerted Ragdoll to parents’ concerns about obesity, says VP of business affairs and development David Levine.
While children’s fitness may just now be shaping up as the issue du jour in North America, Reykjavik, Iceland’s LazyTown keyed into its importance 11 years ago. Founded by fitness guru and lecturer Magnus Scheving, the LazyTown concept launched in 1992 with a mandate to improve the health of children. Since then, the multimillion-dollar Icelandic franchise has grown to encompass books, board games, videos, CDs, a radio station, theatrical productions, and even its own line of fruits and vegetables.
Scheving, a three-time gold medalist in the European Fitness Championships, is now focused on using TV to export the LazyTown philosophy worldwide. With the help of industry vets Norman Stiles (ex-Sesame Workshop) and Evan Baily (ex-Nick), he has developed a LazyTown series pilot and is in negotiations with U.S. and European networks. The live-action/puppet series (26 to 40 half hours) will center on a group of kids who would spend all their time eating sweets and watching TV if given the chance. Superhero Sportacus and new kid Stephanie (who doesn’t buy into their sloth and gluttony) try to get the lazybones to be more active and eat right, but their efforts are undermined by villain Robbie Rotten.
Though LazyTown is not designed to be an ‘exercise’ show per se, Scheving says testing has proven that the quick pace of the series, which he describes as Moulin Rouge meets James Bond, inspires kids to get up and role-play once it’s over.
Despite LazyTown’s success in Iceland, some pundits might wonder whether good-for-you TV can work in a nation where super-sizing one’s fast-food order has almost become a constitutional right. But Scheving, who studied various TV markets before developing the pilot, says the only reason health-oriented series haven’t worked to date has been a lack of caring on the part of producers.
‘Why isn’t it possible,’ asks Scheving, ‘to have a business and really care at the same time? I want to look back and say that I did something good.’