Thanks for letting me briefly commandeer your blog, Josh! My name is Dade Hayes. I run the New York office of Variety, the so-called “bible of showbiz” and I also wrote a book about my investigations of media’s effects on my two kids, Margot (5) and Finley (1½). The book is called Anytime Playdate: Inside the Preschool Entertainment Boom, or, How Television Became My Baby’s Best Friend (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2008).
Rather than submit to a conventional interview, I decided (at Josh’s suggestion) to have the Little Voice Inside My Head quiz me. Well, he didn’t exactly use that name, but I’m sure you’ve heard it – always asking you why you’re doing or not doing any number of things. For instance, it just loves to ask whether you feel guilty about letting your toddler watch television. So I figured Little VIMH would have plenty of questions. All right, then, I’m yours, L.V. Take your best shot!
You seem suspiciously constructive about a lot of aspects to the topic of your book. What’s with the Up With People routine? Can’t you see media is rotting kids’ brains?
Well, for the record, I do have a lot of concerns, as most parents do about this business that has mushroomed from humble beginnings in my childhood into a $21 billion multimedia behemoth. But I thought it was important to take the preschool business seriously not just come in with guns blazing. Dismissing all media for kids as mind-warping, culture-wrecking pap is admittedly the best route to the best-seller list (see the umpteen editions of The Plug-In Drug). But, as I write in the introduction of the book, I have always been bothered by these strident calls to arms that just seem totally unrealistic in an era when media is ubiquitous and more participatory for its audience.
OK, then, smart guy. What surprised you in your reporting?
The layers of R&D that go into these shows, the depth of real research and the amount of testing on kids is a lot more than I would have expected. The show I followed, Ni Hao, Kai-lan on Nick Jr., took four years. That was partly because they had a very complex curriculum, with cultural points, language points and emotional intelligence, not to say the task of getting the thing animated in Hong Kong and working with a team that was spread across the world. There were headaches and that was why it was delayed, but I think it was also a situation where they were trying to learn as much as they could about how effective it was and how they needed to keep shaping it and refining it to make it as valuable as it could be. They’re selling it, obviously. They want to make it marketable and appealing as a piece of consumer goods, but what surprised me again and again was that the best producers, the biggest and best known brands, they put an awful lot into these shows. I think the layperson, even a parent right in the middle of the living room of entertainment, tends to have a knee-jerk thought that this stuff is kind of tossed off, that it’s cheaply produced, people are trying to make a buck, that it’s sort of the old-timey puppet shows produced on a shoestring. But the reality is that many producers spend millions on a series. The animation and technology get more and more sophisticated all the time. They’re tailoring it to the Web and mobile devices. They’re designing games around it. They’re at the same time tending to the needs of kids in a pretty thorough way. That all surprised me and informed my overall view of the industry. I’m sort of mixed, you could say. I have some criticism but I don’t think it’s as mercenary and predatory as it’s often portrayed.
But aren’t a lot of shows just cool concepts awkwardly retrofitted to include certain educational or curricular points? And what kind of fun is that end product to watch?
There is sometimes that sense that some of these shows are just loaves of white bread getting pumped with vitamins. The taste doesn’t necessarily improve. The energy of the show can sometimes just be somehow a little off. In many cases, striking the right balance between sheer entertainment and educational value is as difficult as growing orchids. You have to have just the right climate, the right amount of moisture and they are organic things. You can’t necessarily mechanize the process too much or else it just gets ruined. If you look around the world, and other countries and their traditions, like in the U.K., you just don’t have the same dogmatic approach to getting shows on the air in terms of the educational component, and so by and large the shows are better there. I’m not saying they’re leagues better than what we have here, but there are just a lot of shows that suffer from the weight of the educational burden.
Check in next week for part 2!