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Aussie iTV study tells preschool programmers to toss the narrative

A three-year research study from Perth, Australia's Interactive Television Research Institute (ITRI) at Murdoch University may change the way producers and networks approach preschool programming the world over. Although the university is in the process of releasing the study's results, which examined how interactivity can enhance a five-year-old's experience with preschool programming, some initial findings are certain to raise questions about how the biz currently speaks to the youngest of viewers.
June 1, 2006

A three-year research study from Perth, Australia’s Interactive Television Research Institute (ITRI) at Murdoch University may change the way producers and networks approach preschool programming the world over. Although the university is in the process of releasing the study’s results, which examined how interactivity can enhance a five-year-old’s experience with preschool programming, some initial findings are certain to raise questions about how the biz currently speaks to the youngest of viewers.

One surprising observation from the Children’s iTV Project (funded by the Australia Research Council, the West Australian Department of Education, and networks such as Nickelodeon Australia, Nine Network and ABC Australia) indicates the best methods to reach preschoolers were often the least expensive to produce. For example, a peripheral on-screen game played via the television’s remote control tends to be a better way to engage and entertain young viewers than asking them to click a button to make decisions about the direction of the plot. And games are cheaper than producing chose-your-own-adventure type scenarios.

Professor Duane Varan, the director of ITRI who headed up the research team, says his staff entered this study believing the size of a TV program’s budget and bandwidth would correspond with its impact on preschool viewers. IRTI’s similar studies on the television-watching habits of adults and older kids had shown engagement with a TV series increased when the viewer could direct the show’s outcome (American Idol, anyone?). But the opposite was the case with preschoolers.

‘Most of the compelling applications we found were low cost and low bandwidth, and that was a real surprise,’ he says, adding choices may be more disruptive to the series’ overall flow. ‘With adults or older kids, a show’s structure is mapped out abstractly in your mind and you’re able to follow along with the story,’ Varan says. ‘But I don’t think preschoolers are capable of that same level of abstraction.’

The conclusion came after conducting several evaluation phases on interactive-show prototypes. The test field consisted of three existing preschool series – Dora the Explorer, Hi-5, and Play School. Over the course of three years, the team monitored the reactions of 500 five-year-olds, chosen from 21 schools in Perth, as they viewed three different versions of each program. For Dora, there was a Haptic version where kids had the option to play a game with the TV remote control; an Incidental in which the preschooler could customize content such as choosing the color of a wagon; and Central, where the protagonist reaches a fork in the road and the child decides which path Dora should follow. ‘There is always a debate whether preschoolers understand structure or whether they need a character to hold onto and carry them through,’ Varan explains. This research helped the team conclude kids don’t understand narrative structure and they indeed need guidance while interacting with their favorite TV program.

Jane Gould, Nickelodeon Australia’s director of programming and research, says it wouldn’t be responsible for the cablenet to invest in interactive segments for preschoolers without running empirical research. In the past three years, the localized network has ramped up its preschool co-production efforts with its work on The Upside Down Show with Sesame Worksop.

Nick Australia entered the study expecting interactive TV’s purpose was to provide preschoolers with the opportunity to influence the narrative. But now understanding these young viewers aren’t seeking (and don’t necessarily benefit from) the option, Gould intends to apply the findings to future initiatives that will lead viewer choice and characters who hold the preschooler’s hand along the way.

Lynley Marshall, director of ABC New Media & Digital Services, and Gabrielle Shaw, a research analyst for the pubcaster, say the results were also surprising in light of the childhood obesity epidemic. Despite the belief that watching TV goes hand-in-hand with inactivity, the study found typical kid couch potatoes notably increased their physical movement as they became engaged with an interactive TV program. The pubcaster anticipates the results will help guide future programming initiatives for preschoolers not only for its linear channel, but for the 35 hours of kids shows it broadcasts weekly on its free-to-air digital channel, ABC2.

Varan warns, however, that interactive TV doesn’t always produce these kinds of results. ‘It doesn’t inherently weave magic. Rather, it enables something – and that can be positive, negative or have no effect whatsoever,’ he says. And now that the infrastructure is set up to conduct further research, Varan contends more projects studying this style of programming will start up in the region. For Children’s iTV, the ITRI team not only created a portable lab to travel to and from Perth’s public and private schools, they also developed equipment to view respondents in their homes.

The mobile unit, which ventured out to schools every day for a year, included two living rooms with an observation area in the center. The in-house, qualitative phase was conducted in 10 homes. A small video recording system dubbed Little Brother was installed in living rooms and enabled the research team to watch the kids in their natural habitat for a week. It also opened the door to observing co-viewing opportunities prompted by interactive preschool programming. This was particularly relevant during Haptic-style phases when there was more than one kid vying to play an interactive game using the single television remote control.

ITRI’s findings are all the more pertinent to the business given that more preschoolers appear to be hooked to the tube. In the States, for example, Manlo Park, California’s Kaiser Family Foundation released its Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers, Preschoolers and their Parents report last May. Conducted via a random telephone survey of 1,051 parents with kids ages six months to six years, it showed one-third of all U.S. kids in the demo have TVs in their bedrooms – 19% are under the age of one; 29% fall into the two to three year old bracket and four-to-six-years-olds make up 43% of the group.

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