Let’s face it: kids under four years of age aren’t exactly the most eloquent creatures. So when TV producers create shows for preschool consumption, they often test them with caregivers rather than the kids themselves because parents filter what reaches their kids and are better able to verbalize a show’s pros and cons. Yet with the growth of cable and digital platforms carrying young-skewing programs, is it in the TV producer’s best interest to ignore its key demographic?
If it came down to choosing only one demo, Radha Subramanyam, senior director of research at Viacom in New York, says Noggin receives its most valuable feedback by talking directly to kids. The key signs Noggin and its contracted researchers read to gauge a preschooler’s reaction to a show include whether the child is engaged and paying attention to what’s on-screen, and their facial reactions and body language (i.e. when they’re pointing, laughing, singing and clapping).
From a producer’s perspective, Nelvana VP of educational development Irene Weibel says that when a show is in early development and all that exists are rough storyboards, the only option is to reach out to caregivers. ‘Today, it’s really hard to produce a fully animated pilot before you get a network deal. But without the pilot, it’s hard to get a reaction from the kids,’ she says. Scholastic Entertainment’s executive VP Deborah Forte agrees, saying caregivers can give feedback on whether kids’ social, cognitive and emotional needs are being addressed as early as the storyboard stage. Once these architectural elements are in place, Forte and Wiebel say materials can then be produced to create rough cuts for kid-testing.
Anya Hollis, director of marketing and consumer products at London, England’s Entertainment Rights, agrees that caregivers are a key first test group. ‘Children ages two to four find it difficult to express their feelings… and their reactions can sometimes be misinterpreted by researchers,’ Hollis says. She believes parents can accurately translate their child’s responses and put them into context for a researcher.
Stacey Matthias, principal at New York’s Insight Research, has worked with cable networks and broadcast partners such as Noggin and the BBC on show-testing for the past seven years. She says when children and parents both watch a show and are asked follow-up questions separately, there are often vast differences between what the child says and how the parent thinks the child liked the show. For example, a parent may say their child really enjoyed the show, but the preschooler’s attention drifted when a particular character was on-screen. ‘It’s important to talk to both audiences because parents have the ability to tune shows out. It’s really up to the child to decide whether they’d stick through 22 minutes of that show or go do something else,’ she says.