What we found:
Because the term ‘reality TV’ can be interpreted many ways, we began this survey by asking kids how they’d define the concept. Our panelists decided that any non-scripted programming – including game shows, talent shows, contests and slice-of-life documentaries – fit the bill.
Given that broad scope, one might assume that reality shows pop up often on kids’ can’t-miss viewing lists. But the sobering reality is that most kids watch such shows rarely or irregularly, in part because their parents restrict their viewing. And since most kids watch reality TV with their families, parental censoring is easily achieved. While they aren’t allowed to watch shows that are overtly ‘scary’ (Fear Factor), have mature content (Cops) or feature bad language (The Osbournes), awareness of such shows was high amongst our panelists.
There are also shows that the Reactorz kids don’t watch because they tap into patently adult interests, like Mr. Personality and Joe Millionaire, which were deemed too mushy!
The reality fare that kids favor focuses on physical challenges and strategy (Survivor), talent (American Idol) and displays of intelligence (Who Wants to be A Millionaire?).
The common thread tying these diverse series together is the element of competition. And when it comes to reality TV, this is what excites and entertains kids most. Plus, from previous television research (see ‘Kids and TV: What they really, really want,’ page 70, KidScreen January 2003), we know that kids prefer shows that have main characters with whom they can identify. With most of the above-mentioned series, kids can root for their favorite participants each week.
Is there media or merch life beyond the tube for kids reality TV? Yes. But there are limits to ancillary opportunities. Most kids agree that they would go see a feature film based on their favorite reality show, but must-have merch is limited to apparel, posters and CDs.
What kids really want is more reality shows featuring kids their age. (Note: Awareness of recent debut America’s Most Talented Kid and just-launched American Idol spin-off American Juniors was still low among our panelists). Other adult-targeted reality shows kids would like to see refurbished for them include Survivor and Fear Factor.
When it comes to kid-targeted reality concepts, producers need to tap into kids’ reality passions – physical, mental and talent competition. The current crop of romance-centric series does not interest them. And on the ancillary front, kids are open to movies, apparel, posters and music CDs.
What kids said:
‘I’ll never get sick of reality shows. I watch them whenever I am allowed. I get to see more of them at my dad’s house than my mom’s because my stepmom is addicted to them too.’ (girl, 8)
‘I think that romance [reality shows] are too mushy, and life stories are kinda boring.’ (girl, 12)
‘I am not allowed to watch Cops or Life in the ER. My parents think the content is too mature for my age.’ (girl, 9)
‘None of the shows are for kids. We should have some that are more for those under 13.’ (girl, 8)
‘I’d make a show based on [MTV's] Becoming…but just for kids.’ (boy, 11)
‘I’d make a show that features kids on a deserted island that have to find their way to the other side [and the first one to make it there wins]. There would be obstacles to tempt them along the way, such as video games or a buffet of food…maybe they’ll run into their favorite movie stars. And there would be challenges that they’d have to complete as well.’ (girl, 10)