It’s no secret that making kids shows that are both educational and entertaining remains a difficult task for content creators. For every global success like Sesame Street, there are countless well-meaning projects that kids have not grokked to. Finding the balance is particularly tricky for shows that want to examine complex environmental issues like climate change. How do you approach the topic in terms of genre, format, terminology and demographic? How can you avoid scaremongering? Which broadcasters are actively looking for eco-conscious content? In this section of Kidscreen’s special report on the industry’s environmental efforts, we gauge the content requirements of the broadcast teams at ABC (Australia), CBC Kids (Canada), BBC Children’s (UK) and PBS KIDS (US) unpack some key dos and don’ts for pitching and producing shows that deal with climate change.
In Canada, CBC Kids is open to preschool projects with an educational curriculum built around the environment, as long as it’s concrete and relatable to the target audience.
“You can’t start talking about climate change or abstract things that preschoolers don’t understand,” says senior director Marie McCann. “You need to lay a foundation. Any good early-learning childhood curriculum bakes in an awareness of the environment, as well as good practices—whether it’s recycling leftover food after meals, or some other lesson that ties into very simple preschool learning.”
McCann points to CBC’s popular mixed-media series Scout & the Gumboot Kids as a good example of a show that gives preschoolers the fundamentals for understanding the natural environment around them. It features a curious stop-motion mouse and a group of real kids who embark on outdoor adventures to solve nature’s mysteries.
Also taking a foundational knowledge approach is at PBS KIDS. Head of content Linda Simensky says the US pubcaster learned several years ago that preschoolers need to understand weather and how it works before they can understand why good green behavior is important.
“In talking with child development and science education experts, [we learned] climate change doesn’t mean anything to little kids,” says Simensky. “You can’t say to a four-year-old, ‘Don’t fly anywhere.’ What you can do is explain how weather works, and how pollution happens.”
In a recent episode of animated series Arthur, for example, Simensky says the story tackled the topic of pollution.
“The episode was about how parents were contributing to pollution by letting their cars idle outside of Arthur’s school, and the kids had to strategize a way to encourage fewer parents to do this,” she says. “Instead of showing diagrams about how a carburetor works, we talked about how there can be less pollution.”
As for content needs, PBS KIDS is looking for any style of science-based show—preferably in half hours—for kids ages two to eight. Simensky wants to see well-developed characters who are curious about the world, serve as good role models, and connect well with others.
Another positive way to help preschoolers and their parents engage with environmental topics is through music and songs. BBC Children’s head Cheryl Taylor points to the song “Help Our Little World” from CBeebies’ Tee & Mo, which simplifies sustainability and is a great example for content creators looking to infuse their series with a bit of green messaging.
“It’s very inclusive and takes small steps in saying to children, ‘Let’s think about water use when we brush our teeth,’ or [asking], ‘Why should we take a bike rather than a car?’” says Taylor. “The message that we may be little, but we can do something big for our planet, is important for all kids and their families to hear.”
The scripted genre is providing new opportunities to speak to older kids’ growing frustrations around issues like climate change.
“There are lots of projects that deal with bigger environmental topics, and the quality bar is being raised in terms of empowering stories and style,” says ABC Australia’s head of children’s content, Libbie Doherty. “It’s great that kids are watching shows that are complex and challenging.”
Because the pubcaster often co-funds or co-produces its commissions, ABC is on the hunt for scripted children’s shows with a local angle that will also resonate internationally, Doherty says. One such upcoming tween/teen drama is Itch, a 10-part adventure series from Komixx Entertainment based on the bestselling book series by Simon Mayo. The series stars a science-obsessed teen who discovers a new element in the periodic table, and is forced to go on the run to protect it.
“It directly addresses how kids are feeling distressed about grownups not taking control of the climate change situation,” says Doherty.
BBC Children’s is also looking for live-action scripted series with a green tinge as environmental content is one of the pubcaster’s top priorities, says Taylor. “Whether it’s our long-running series The Dumping Ground, which always has one or two storylines that are eco-conscious, or a drama like Jamie Johnson, which recently focused on reusing plastic drink cartons, everyone is doing their part across genres to embed sustainability messages.”
As for CBC Kids, McCann says she’s on the lookout for can-do content that explores the longer-term impact of climate change, and how we can live in an environmentally shifting world.
The pubcaster recently launched Sinking Ship Entertainment’s sci-fi tween series Endlings (pictured). Set 20 years in the future, it tells the story of a mysterious alien who is on a mission to save the last members of near-extinct species and encounters four foster children and a lone elephant on Earth.
In the factual space, even though there is more leeway to be educational, creators still need to ensure their content is as entertaining as possible. But according to ABC’s Doherty, this can be a challenge.
“A lot of pitches [we get] skew a bit too educational,” she says. “People do a good job of making sure the science and the theories are backed up—which is always heartening—but what’s difficult is finding an entertaining vehicle to unpack the information.”
Another common mistake in pitching factual shows is presenting ideas and problems from a grownup perspective, rather than the kid’s point of view. “We are focused on new young talent for eco-conscious content, meaning we want to see kids taking action for the betterment of the world,” says Doherty.
ABC is searching for innovative factual formats with local and global appeal, plus new ways to communicate climate information. An example of an innovative format, according to Doherty, could look something like My Year 12 Life, which gave 14 kids cameras for a year to shoot their lives. “We didn’t know if the show would turn out, but the innovation of that format was in how we made it stream together like an episodic series,” she says.
Back in Canada, McCann says one of the biggest challenges for its CBC Kids News service is reporting environmental stories for eight- to 13-year-olds in a fair and balanced way. “We have stories about climate change that represent kids’ opinions, but we also have stories about kids whose families depend on the [oil] pipelines,” says McCann. “We provide the facts and then allow the audience to form their own opinions.”
At BBC Children’s, Taylor says the pubcaster just commissioned a seven-part half-hour unscripted series for CBBC that involves bees and childrens’ participation in the environment. “I can’t reveal the title yet, but it shines a light on different types of climate change and protecting the planet.”
As for challenges, Taylor says the team has to be very careful—even with CBBC’s older age group—not to scaremonger.
It’s a valid concern, considering a recent Viacom survey of kids ages six to 11 in 30 countries found that 47% of kids ages nine to 11 said they think the current state of the environment is bad, and 32% believe it will get worse in the next year or so.
“We know a lot of children are very anxious about the environment,” says Taylor. “But we don’t want them to feel worried or depressed, which is why we show them what they can do to get involved. On the other hand, we can’t cotton ball them, because they want to know the facts and don’t want to be patronized.”
All week we’re breaking down the industry’s efforts to go green. You can check out yesterday’s story on the steps we’re taking to make Kidscreen Summit more green, and track all of the stories as they come out on the Going Green page.