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Get Real! Kids game shows head for a format makeover

Kids game shows have traditionally gone a long way towards helping broadcasters connect with their audiences and meet local production quotas, without requiring them to dip too deeply into their pocketbooks. A simple studio-based quiz show costs between US$18,000 and US$27,000 per half hour to produce, whereas an animated half hour will run at least five times that. But times are changing. Taking a cue from adult reality shows that have revolutionized prime-time programming the world over, there's a new breed of reality/game show hybrids popping up on the kids TV landscape. And while it's early days, some industry players speculate that these adventure-packed, location-based offerings may just be what it takes to get the kids game show formats market off the ground.
October 1, 2005

Kids game shows have traditionally gone a long way towards helping broadcasters connect with their audiences and meet local production quotas, without requiring them to dip too deeply into their pocketbooks. A simple studio-based quiz show costs between US$18,000 and US$27,000 per half hour to produce, whereas an animated half hour will run at least five times that. But times are changing. Taking a cue from adult reality shows that have revolutionized prime-time programming the world over, there’s a new breed of reality/game show hybrids popping up on the kids TV landscape. And while it’s early days, some industry players speculate that these adventure-packed, location-based offerings may just be what it takes to get the kids game show formats market off the ground.

Kids are learning to love challenge-and-reward reality shows because they’re tuning into the likes of Survivor and Fear Factor with their parents. In fact, according to Nielsen stats, Fear Factor was NBC’s top-rated show among kids ages two to 11 for the 2003/2004 season – ranking higher at times with this demo than The Wonderful World of Disney and The Simpsons. Furthermore, 77% of those kids watched Fear Factor with an adult, and ratings for the first ‘family’ edition of the show spiked 13% to capture a 6.3 audience share. Not surprisingly, kids producers and broadcasters see this space as ripe with potential and are starting to create similar shows tailored to play to kids’ specific interests, desires and fears.

Broadcasters get in the game

Nickelodeon International senior VP Steve Grieder says the net is definitely moving beyond commissioning or producing studio-based game shows such as Nick classic Double Dare. Developing game shows shot on location is a priority. He’s hunting for concepts that combine a strong narrative with the game show/competition elements of adult reality formats to forge an even stronger link with the net’s viewership. Nick Australia’s Camp Orange and Islandares are leading the way, acting as blueprints for Grieder’s vision.

Both half-hour shows ranked first in their time slots during runs earlier this year. Islandares ran in Nick Oz’s after-school block, and Camp Orange took to the small screen on Friday evenings. The net ran Camp Orange deliberately outside the after-school block to create a destination viewing event, explains Grieder, and a second season has been picked up by Nick Oz for its ’06 sked.

The premise of both shows involves whisking kid contestants away to a mystery island location and putting them through their paces upon landing. Islandares is billed as a kids version of Survivor, complete with two competing teams made up of 10 participants who test their athletic abilities, imaginations and teamwork skills to win wacky challenges. One player is eventually crowned ‘Island Ruler.’ Camp Orange takes things one step further, sending four pairs of best friends to spend an entire week on a secret island with nary a parent in sight.

As with the adult formats, the number of contestants gets whittled down as the challenges and tension ratchet up, creating a taut narrative that can keep kid viewers on the edge of their seats. And according to Grieder, it’s these vicarious touch-points that have driven the success of the two Aussie series. ‘The audience gets to know the kids in the show, they choose favorites, and then they really get behind their chosen team,’ he explains. Also, kids at home get to share in the experience of having adventures away from school and family – and what kid doesn’t want to try that?

Canada’s premier kidnet YTV, owned by Corus Entertainment, seems to have fully embraced location-based game shows. They began appearing on its sked last year, with debutante Spy Academy (a co-pro with Chalk Media) rating well enough to merit the production of a second series, which aired earlier this year. And the net has upped the ante for its 2005/2006 season, adding two more co-pros, Ghost Trackers (with CCI Entertainment) and Prank Patrol (with Apartment 11).

Corus children’s television VP of programming Phil Piazza agrees that one of this genre’s biggest strengths is that kids become very emotionally invested in the contestants. Kids get together to watch the shows as a group, and they often pick a favorite and follow his/her progress throughout the series. In short, the kids at home aren’t passively watching these programs as they would an animated comedy; they’re interacting with them.

Right now, ideas for the shows are usually generated in-house, although Piazza isn’t averse to taking pitches. Once a series is greenlit, the net works closely with its partners on production and continually tweaks the show (sometimes after it’s started airing) to get the formula right.

Then there are broadcasters who are looking at the hybrid with a clinical eye. ‘Location-based reality shows are a very interesting idea, and an obvious area for growth,’ says Estelle Hughes, editor of U.K. kidnet CiTV. She’s fielded her share of reality/game show pitches, but hasn’t seen one compelling enough to pursue. In general, most of the concepts left her feeling uneasy about the types of tasks kid contestants would have to complete. Additionally, the central plot device of the genre – that contestants are voted out of the game – raises a red flag. ‘You have to remember that these kids will be away from family and friends [and vulnerable],’ says Hughes. And being voted off a show has a connotation of rejection that could harm them emotionally.

Piazza concedes that addressing these types of concerns certainly entered into the creative decision-making process. For one, prizes beyond becoming the ultimate spy or ghost tracker, for example, aren’t really offered to contestants. When it comes to judging, the criteria presented to the panel is meant to evoke an objective assessment of the contestant’s performance, and judges are told to refrain from giving the kind of mean-spirited, negative feedback that’s such a big part of the adult-oriented reality game shows.

Production parameters

If you’re starting to like the sound of this new genre, it’s worth noting that these wild and fun shows are comparatively expensive to make. Matt Hornburg, producer and partner at Toronto, Canada’s marblemedia, says kids game shows (all types) can cost anywhere from US$1.7 million to US$7 million, with location-based shows hitting the higher end of that scale.

‘Studio shows are obviously a lot easier and, therefore, a lot cheaper to produce because there aren’t so many variables,’ he says. For example, changes in the weather or unexpected noises can cause delays during filming on location, and that means building contingency funds into your budget. Also, more elaborate reality-style game shows with a dramatic narrative, like Survivor, require more production staff and planning, including a runner and a story editor to deal with sudden plot developments while filming.

Hornburg and his team are currently being put to such a test with Project Adrenaline. The 26 x half-hour series is in development for a budget of US$4 million, and during each episode, four thrill-seeking teens will compete in rigorous physical (think extreme sports) and mental challenges.

For location shoots like the one planned for Project Adrenaline, Hornburg says you must also anticipate having to cart along your own power generator and an operator for it. Additionally, producers have to allot more time for setup and take-down, and very often have to provide facilities such as traveling makeup and warbdrobe units, office trailers and portable washrooms. Finally, if the location is outside the major city where your crew members live, expect to pay for hotels and per diems – basically, it all adds up.

Annie Miles, director of London, England’s Talent Kids (a division of Talent TV), says she’s had similar experiences producing Best of Friends, a half-hour show that takes five best friends on the road and presents them with a series of escalatingly icky tasks (like cleaning out a pig sty) and fabulous treats (such as a helicopter ride) to test the bonds of friendship.

Heading into production on a third season for CBBC, Miles says the per-episode budget is running at around US$80,000, and in-studio game shows cost a fraction of that. Plus it normally takes two days to shoot one episode, whereas a crew on an in-studio show can grind out three or four a day.

Location issues aside, there are also casting and narrative construction elements to consider. Miles says her search for the next group of best friends will take her to schools throughout England. She’ll record show hopefuls auditioning on tape and then go back and sift through the mountains of footage to find the most engaging performers for her cast.

CCI Entertainment executive VP of production Jim Corston went to similar lengths to find the 24 early teens who appeared in the initial 26 eps of Ghost Trackers, CCI’s new US$2.9-million co-pro with YTV. More than 300 kids tried out for the series, and hopefuls were put through an extensive interview that included telling a ghost story.

It was essential, says Corston, to find kids with vibrant personalities who could narrate. A big part of the show – which revolves around competing ghost trackers exploring a ‘haunted house’ for evidence of paranormal activity – is the contestants’ use of a diary-cam to describe what they’re seeing to the audience. Besides the audition, the kids were sent on a brief course with a paranormal expert to learn about the practice of ghost-hunting and see if they have a knack for it.

A burgeoning formats market?

While these shows owe a lot to the Survivors that came before them, the one thing they don’t have in common is an international market in format rights. It’s certain that broadcasters would not consider purchasing a format of a traditional game show. After all, the in-studio shows are an inexpensive and easy way to infuse a programming block with local content and color, so why pay for a format that has to be adapted? But it is conceivable that a broadcaster would fork out the cash for a location-based reality/game show format. As noted, they’re much more complicated to produce and a broadcaster just might be willing to pay for the technical expertise they come with. The bugs have been worked out, and presumably the producer knows what works and what doesn’t.

At least that’s what CCI’s Corston is banking on. Selling Ghost Trackers as a format into territories such as Italy, France and Germany was part of his company’s strategy from the get-go. The equipment the kid trackers use (including an electromagnetic field detector, parabolic microphone and digital thermometer) is proprietary, as are the costumes and the ‘pimped-out’ Ghost Tracker truck. The show’s progression is carefully plotted so that the haunted houses get bigger and scarier as the competition wears on, driving the narrative and making it increasingly compelling for kids to watch. And it’s this technical and scripting knowledge that Corston believes a buyer will find attractive.

CiTV’s Hughes doesn’t dismiss the idea outright and would consider acquiring a format if the show was a fit for her schedule. But the notion of piling the costs of acquiring format rights on top of regular production expenses makes her wary. In the end, her interest is entirely dependent on the perceived strength of the show.

‘I wouldn’t rule out a broadcaster paying for a kids format, especially if expertise and production talent came along with it,’ says Anne Gilchrist, executive editor of independents and events at CBBC. ‘When you’re working on small budgets, it does mean that the idea/format you’re buying has to be a phenomenally good one to warrant the expense.’

Alternatively, Gilchrist speculates that it is possible a trade might emerge in rights, not to location-based formats as such, but to the technology being used to produce some shows. She holds out CBBC’s Bamzooki as an example. The show plays on both the web and TV, and uses cutting-edge software that kids can download to make their own Bamzooki characters to pit against those designed by other kids. ‘Even if producers didn’t like the Bamzooki format, they could license the software and make their own show,’ she says.

With files from Lana Castleman

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