Starting Them Young: With a whole new crop of kid-oriented non-fiction hitting TV this fall, producers and distributors look for a lasting formula

The increasing popularity of non-fiction programming for adult audiences has inevitably filtered down to the children's television market. Knowing how to reach, and maintain, these often fickle viewers is an ongoing challenge, which programmers are meeting creatively...
October 1, 1997

The increasing popularity of non-fiction programming for adult audiences has inevitably filtered down to the children’s television market. Knowing how to reach, and maintain, these often fickle viewers is an ongoing challenge, which programmers are meeting creatively

Several producers and programmers cite blending education with entertainment as the key to attracting young viewers. Really Wild Animals, which currently airs on Disney Channel in the U.S. and in more than 30 international territories, features an animated globe as the host, but takes a factual look at animals.

National Geographic Television has introduced fictional elements such as animated characters into non-fiction settings. ‘This provides a context in which the kids can understand the subject of the program by adding another layer to the story line,’ explains Anne Dickerson, development manager, children’s programming for National Geographic Television.

The parent-child relationship is an important component of Mark’s Wired World, says Gary Schneider, president of Guy Television which produces the fast-paced computer series targeting older teens. ‘We try to provide parents with a number of teaching elements. When the show is over, kids walk away feeling we have whetted their appetite and provided them with useful information.’

According to Dickerson, the cost for a half-hour of kids’ non-fiction on ngt averages between US$100,000 to $350,000, whereas the low-end for an adult show begins at that high-end, ranging up to $1 million. ‘If we shoot a non-fiction program for adults, we may have a crew in the field for two years. The kind of documentary programming we do is incredibly expensive. The children’s market just does not bear that kind of expense.’

Although kids’ non-fiction is a growing market, Reed Shelly, director of development for L.A.-based GRB Entertainment, points out that producers and distributors who have sold reality series to adults have to be careful: ‘Everyone is trying to figure out how to make this genre work for kids. They must learn that the kids’ reality business is quite different.’

GRB was careful to make Mega Movie Magic, a kids’ special-effects series, distinct from the long-running Movie Magic series which airs on Discovery Channel. ‘[Kids] are interested in different things than adults are, and ask different questions about topics than adults would.’

Marjorie Kaplan, senior VP, children’s programming at Discovery, has a similar mindset. ‘It is not about reversioning adult documentaries and putting in hip music. This is about talking to kids in a way that really speaks to them, and understands who they are. That is a critical distinction.’

Discovery Networks is involved in a brand-new non-fiction children’s programming initiative as part of their Discovery Kids Sunday morning lineup. New for the fall season is a series called The Adventures of A.R.K., which features four kids who rescue animals in adventures which take them around the globe.

CBS has jumped on the non-fiction bandwagon, too, with Sports Illustrated for Kids, a new weekly series produced by Sports Illustrated Television. ‘This non-fictional kids’ business is in its infancy,’ says Ted Shaker, president, who feels that sports can ‘easily be used as a metaphor. We are exploring the notion that sports programs of a different sort can be both informative and educational to children.’

The International Scene

In overseas markets, non-fiction programming for children is catching on as well. According to William E. Miller, president of NYC-based Hearst Entertainment Distribution, the ability to generate excitement often plays an integral role. There has been enormous interest internationally in Popular Mechanics for Kids, produced by Montreal-based Coscient/Astral Productions in association with Hearst.

Scott Hanock, managing director, Unapix International notes, ‘There is a voracious appetite for well-produced programming with non-American kids speaking on camera.’ The company has had success as coproducer of Kids Planet Video, a video-camera series aired earlier this year on Encore’s Wam and presold in a number of international territories. ‘We have developed non-fictional series that can be localized only by doing limited shooting with kids.’

Rick Rodriguez, VP programming for Discovery Latin America, is working towards making ‘edutaining’ interstitials. ‘We try to make the channels look as interactive as possible. We devised ten different kinds of educational but fun segments that encourage kids to learn about a variety of topics. It really caught the imagination of viewers, but also was a way to brand our own product.’

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.