This past week, three colleagues and I prepared an article pitch on reasons why research scientists and industry content creators haven’t always connected well, and suggestions for collaboration going forward. As we worked, a small memory kept tickling my brain, and after some searching, I was able to find a document I wrote around 1994, when the American Children’s Television Festival (“The Ollie Awards”) morphed into the American Center for Children’s Television (and later “…Children and Media”).
The memo was headlined “Rules of Engagement,” after the directives given to armed forces that define both permissions and limitations for how, when, where and why they may use force.
Our transition was forced (festivals are incredibly hard to fund), but it compelled us to focus on three constructive things we’d learned from running the competition:
- The awards were important, but since few got to take one home, what children’s TV (remember…1994) professionals really valued was the chance to exchange information, ideas and expertise with colleagues;
- There were few other platforms at the time where TV producers, writers and programming executives came together with educators, researchers, child development experts and people who ran kid-friendly playspaces or museums;
- The festival was appreciated for its positive and practical structure, rooted in concrete evaluation and discussion of a program’s idea, script, production values and audience targeting, with consideration for the production context (local or national, commercial or public, cable or broadcast).
With this knowledge, we set out to embed the best aspects of the Ollies in a creative professional development center. We knew that our success in engaging festival habitués in seminars, workshops, panels, debates and such depended on demonstrating respect for the professional stature, creative vision and busy schedules of children’s media experts.
Thus were born the “Rules of Engagement,” and I think they still stand up today as a Baedeker for relationships between creative industries and those who seek to advise, support and strengthen them. Most are surprisingly basic; I’ve updated a few to reflect today’s omnipresent multi-platform media landscape.
- Provide clear information, or strategies for locating it, and support that information with practical advice for applying it in a creative setting. Information is unlikely to be used if it is written in confusing or academic language, or irreconcilable with the real world of the marketplace.
- Supply information in a timely manner—understanding and respecting production schedules is vital to giving practical, helpful advice. Whatever you are advocating to be incorporated into a production is much better “baked in” from the start than tacked on at the end (did we really ever expect kids to enjoy “chocolate-covered broccoli”).
- Build from strengths rather than lecturing about weaknesses. It’s much easier to engage people by leading them forward than by shoving them back.
- Wherever possible, use visual examples to teach visual creators. There’s a reason why PRIX JEUNESSE “Suitcase” screenings are among the best-loved professional development events worldwide—the fodder for discussion is finished programs that have actually been telecast, not abstract concepts or issues.
- Respect the financial pressures under which children’s media professionals work. Virtually all are eager to do good things for young people, but they’re also engaged in a high-pressure business where financial successes are rare. Money isn’t the key factor in creating high-quality children’s media (i.e., no amount of money can save a bad idea), but without it, a good idea can’t get off the ground.
- Show children’s media experts that they’re not alone. Many work in isolation, especially with emerging app, game and video companies comprised of just one or two people. Others work within companies where children’s content is only one of many competing priorities. Connecting people who share an interest and vision, but come from different sectors, yields the kind of dynamic, creative exchange vital to generating new ideas and approaches. I’ve found children’s entertainment professionals, more than those from any other audience sector, genre or industry, willing to share with one another to ensure that our (very precious) audience gets the best we have to offer.
- Support the creative vision. A researcher, advisor or advocate can never be so arrogant as to think that his or her ideas are better than the original creator’s (it’s always good practice to “know what you don’t know”). Instead, our role is to endow other people’s ideas with the best available knowledge about how children grow and learn, and how families live and play, so that beneficial opportunities aren’t missed.
- Keep children first. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if a program, film, game, app or product satisfies educators, researchers, academics or politicians. If children don’t enjoy, engage with, and benefit from content or a product, it can’t do any good.
These “Rules of Engagement” served the American Center very well, and I’ve been pleased—and not at all surprised—that they also form the foundation beneath PlayCollective’s research, strategy and development work. With simple respect and understanding, the relationship between researchers or advisors and their industry partners can be win-win-win (remember, the kids are the primary stakeholders…).
What rules of engagement would you add, to facilitate collaboration? Comment below.