With the Sprockets International Film Festival for Children well underway in Toronto, industry experts gathered yesterday for Kids should see this: tackling challenging content in children’s media.
Moderated by Allen Braude, co-director of learning for the Toronto International Film Festival, the panel consisted of industry experts in fields of television, books and interactive media and focused on how challenging and controversial subject matters should be presented effectively to young audiences. Panelist Charles Falzon, co-chairman of Toronto-based CCI Entertainment and former president of Gullane Entertainment, explained that the key to handling topics like bullying, depression and early dating is to focus on common themes and build meaningful and ‘non-confrontational programming’ around relatable themes.
Amy Friedman, SVP of original programming/creative director at Nickelodeon’s teen-focused brand TeenNick, said the success of shows like Degrassi, which TeenNick broadcasts, boils down to context and consequences. As Degrassi co-creator and executive producer Linda Schuyler added, ‘If kids are talking about it we need to find a way to talk about it on our show.’ Schuyler, who spent eight years as a junior high school teacher before starting the Canadian series, said challenging issues need to grow organically from her characters in order for the conflicts to be believable. Her material, she said, talks directly to youth.
Kim Gibson, who is program consultant for the interactive digital media division of the Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC), has yet to face such controversial youth content in her area. However, she is starting to see more interactive games with serious subject matters and wouldn’t be adverse to handling more challenging topics and determining what the audience needs.
Gibson and others agreed that the internet has become a powerful tool in disseminating info to kids. But, she adds, there are gaps in the space for adolescents. Many kids in the age bracket jump from social networking sites like Club Penguin right to adult-oriented Facebook with nothing in between to help ease the transition to more mature platforms. Conversely, Deborah Ellis, who writes books for young people that deal with serious topics, said the internet has not played a major role in reaching her audience. Her books, which cater to a middle-school audience, explore controversial international issues.
TeenNick’s Friedman also said that she sees a need for more role models for young boys. She added that the idea of branded youth entertainment is one area to watch. As she put it, ‘Someone is going to get really good at it.’