How to succeed in making green content for the eco-conscious generation

From weather to veganism to upcycling, kidcos are upgrading their environmentally themed content with more depth (and even optimism) to appeal to an increasingly global kid interest in climate change and sustainability.
April 19, 2023

Eco-themed content is something more and more producers seem keen to provide, and it’s a good fit for public broadcasting’s socially focused mandates. But do kids themselves want it? Evidence from recent industry research says yes.

Demand for climate-focused programming is becoming increasingly consistent across the globe, rather than region-specific, says Pete Robinson, chief strategy officer at UK research firm KidsKnowBest. The subject is showing up in a growing number of course outlines for all grade levels in schools, and young activists like Greta Thunberg and crazy-popular YouTuber MrBeast—who successfully executed a fan-led campaign to plant 20 million trees by 2022—are popular with slightly older kids, stoking curiosity and interest among younger ones. Plus, it’s in the news all the time.

KidsKnowBest conducted polls last year with kids ages six to nine in North America, Europe and Australia. On average, nearly a third of all respondents said they want to see environmental themes in their media. “As children become more aware of environmental issues and want to engage with characters they relate to, it feels like this is a space that [more] children’s content-makers should take notice of,” says Robinson.

In the UK, broadcaster Sky Kids commissioned a survey of 2,000 children ages seven to 14 last fall for its weekly news show FYI. The findings revealed that half (50%) of kids are frightened by climate change, with 43% believing it to be the biggest issue the world currently faces. Data like this has weighed into Sky Kids’ strategy to commission more optimistic climate-focused edutainment.

The channel launched a variety of content related to climate change last fall, including the informative live-action film COP27: Six Ways to Save Our Planet and season two of CG-animated series Obki for five- to nine-year-olds. Obki creator Amanda Evans says the show’s alien main character delivers big laughs, but also reels audiences in with kid-friendly insights into complex topics like the environmental impact of microfibers. And while tackling these issues in such a tight episode format (30 x two minutes) was a writing challenge, Evans points to the renewal from Sky Kids as evidence that the short-and-sweet messaging worked.

Elsewhere in Britain, fledgling prodco Peace in a Pod Productions is turning its Vivi the Supervegan book property (written by the prodco’s CCO Tina Newman) into YouTube shorts initially, with an eye to a dedicated app, merchandise, and a long-form series down the road. Veganism may be a complicated topic for kids to digest, so Peace in a Pod CEO Lindsay Watson plans to focus on more accessible and kid-friendly themes like animal welfare and compassion for the Earth.

“We won’t be mentioning the V-word,” she says. “Instead, we’ll generally reflect on some of the choices humans make and explore what choices allow for a more sustainable future.” Animation is particularly effective for this kind of content because it communicates so much through action, Evans adds. As an example, in one episode of Obki, he cranks up the heat in his ship before his Alexa-like companion, Orb, shows him that he could just wear warmer clothes instead.

Public broadcasters have always been fertile ground for programming with a purpose, and the PBS KIDS team is looking for ways to bring kids into the climate conversation without overwhelming them. Sara DeWitt, the channel’s SVP and GM, gives this advice to producers: “You can’t get ahead of yourself too fast [by jumping into topics like] fossil fuel effects and greenhouse gases. You need to think about this through a kid lens, and what’s observable by them. You have to back way up and start with foundational concepts that kids need [in order] to process the wider intricacies of climate change.” One good starting point that PBS has identified is the weather.

In January, the pubcaster greenlit Weather Hunters (40 x 22 minutes) from New York’s Al Roker Entertainment. This 2D-animated series targets five to eights and stars a young girl who investigates weather patterns. “We wanted a show that was very specific about weather,” DeWitt says. Weather Hunters was a perfect fit, thanks to its science premise (introducing kids to concepts like meteorology) and the participation of real-life weatherman Al Roker, who “has been dreaming of doing a series like this” for some time, according to DeWitt. Since kids have a built-in “poser” radar, many companies are also hyper-aware that they need to practice what they preach.

Green initiatives are starting to permeate the broader TV industry, influencing tech software, marketing plans and, in some cases, dedicated senior roles (Netflix, Sony). On the indie side of things in the kids space, French prodco TeamTO recently moved into a new eco-friendly Paris studio—which helped it achieve a 63% reduction in its overall carbon footprint—and has invested in creating new, more energy-efficient software tools for energy-intensive CG animation. And the company is interested in sharing what it has learned from these investments. President and co-founder Guillaume Hellouin says TeamTO will make some of its new tools open-source in order to allow other companies to use them.

Elsewhere in Paris, MIAM ! Animation is actively incorporating sustainability into its company ethos. Cleaner production pipelines are a top priority on shows like Edmond and Lucy (52 x 12 minutes, pictured), which uses more energy-efficient real-time image rendering and features environmentally conscious storytelling. The series is the first industrial-format animated series produced with Unity software, which speeds up production and reduces computer-generated carbon footprints. “With real-time, our episodes are rendered in only a few hours using a single machine, instead of several computers over a number of weeks,” notes founder Hanna Mouchez. Outside the studio, MIAM ! plans to organize a series of nature workshops in which French kids will watch an episode of Edmond and Lucy and then play together outdoors, adds Mouchez. (Obki Productions’ Evans also envisions initiatives like themed beach clean-ups and a merch range of products featured in the series, such as bamboo toothbrushes and eco-friendly adhesive bandages.)

MIAM ! is already working on its next eco-themed series for Canal+—a CG-animated comedy called The Tinies, in which a group of toys uses everyday household items for entertainment (to introduce preschoolers to the concept of upcycling). Mouchez argues that the most effective content avoids stoking eco-anxiety by blending a fun and hopeful tone with useful information, rather than ringing alarm bells. “Kids don’t want to be alerted—they already are [alert].”

This story originally appeared in Kidscreen‘s April/May 2023 magazine. 

For producers interested in learning how they can go greener, Canadian pubcaster CBC is offering a free virtual event called Seeds of Change on April 26. Sally Catto, GM of entertainment, factual and sports at CBC will host, sharing advice on how to bring environmental themes into storytelling and create more sustainable sets. Registration is open here.

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