S is for Science

Using the words 'science', 'documentary' and 'children' in the same sentence is the quickest way to lose a commission. Haunted by memories of the flickering, black and white, educational films that discouraged countless school children from considering a lab coat career, broadcasters are reluctant to embrace youth-oriented science docs. Today's kid audience, it seems, prefers factual programs. 'There are two kinds of broadcasters,' says Olivier Bremond, managing director of Paris-based Marathon Productions. 'One doesn't even want to hear the word documentary. The other is willing to look at something that's a little different, but if we say 'documentary for children,' they get negative about it. We always call it a children's series, not a documentary series.'Colin Nobbs, executive producer of The Big Bang, a six-year-old science and discovery program produced by U.K.-based Yorkshire TV for commercial broadcaster ITV, has a similar reaction to the 'D' world. 'We avoid doing anything that program makers would recognize as a documentary,' he says. 'Our feeling is if you have anything like a talking head on a show, it's a switch off for kids. That's not to say they don't watch factual programs. The truism of a young audience is that they're voracious in their appetite for information and knowledge. They really want to learn and know. But, you have to know how to frame that information for them.'
October 1, 2001

Using the words ‘science’, ‘documentary’ and ‘children’ in the same sentence is the quickest way to lose a commission. Haunted by memories of the flickering, black and white educational films that discouraged countless school children from considering a lab-coat career, broadcasters are reluctant to embrace youth-oriented science docs. Today’s kid audience, it seems, prefers factual programs.

A tale that must be told

Producers and programmers accustomed to navigating the whims of a young audience admit that the best way to get kids excited about science is to not tell them it’s science. ‘We’re looking to appeal to a broad audience – to girls and to boys and to kids who aren’t necessarily interested in science or the natural world,’ says Nobbs. ‘Given that, we try to find ways of being entertaining, either by telling stories or by giving kids things to do, and slipping in the science through the back door.’

Nobbs is not alone in his approach. Discovery is gearing up for what amounts to a re-launch of its 24-hour U.S. digital kids channel. According to Marjorie Kaplan, senior vice president of Discovery Kids programming and products, the channel’s program lineup will emphasize fictional shows with factual content. ‘In order to engage children in television, you have to tell them stories,’ she explains. ‘Our mandate is to do entertaining programming for kids that has a commitment to real world content. So, we will be looking at storytelling that has embedded content, but isn’t 100% factual.’

Among the programs in Discovery Kids development pipeline is an animated character and story-driven series, aimed at pre-schoolers, that encourages toddlers to associate cause with effect. Coproduction partners and foundation funds are already secured.

For the eight-plus age group, Discovery is creating a gothic series, inspired by the Harry Potter books, that examines the laws of physics.

‘I think the idea is to create story lines based on something kids are interested in, but challenge them to think in a scientific way. It’s totally appropriate and fun and can be an exciting thing to do,’ says Kaplan. ‘Our number-one criteria when developing science shows for kids is entertaining story lines and ideas that grow out of the stories that can be rich with science content.’

Finding the facts, in spite of the fiction

Finding the right balance between a program’s factual and fictional content can be tricky. The Big Bang is a studio-based show encouraging young people to explore the world around them and to use household materials to create interesting toys that rely on scientific concepts. The program also has a location-based segment covering significant moments in the history of science and invention. Nobbs explains that humor is key to the show’s appeal to youngsters, but the production team is constantly massaging the ratio of gags to info. ‘We find ourselves writing the script and saying, ‘It’s really fun, but what this person did has been lost – the really key bit of interesting information about this inventor or scientist has disappeared,” he says. ‘So, we’ll go back and revise it. You have to constantly assess which side of the line you’re falling on in the scripts.’

For Paris’ Dargaud-Marina, the battle between fact and fiction is fought by a number of its production partners. Dargaud-Marina, a subsidiary of Group Dargaud, is currently producing a 26 x 26-minute animated series based on the adventures of underwater wildlife documentary pioneer Jacques Cousteau. Billed as a playful way to discover the science and mysteries of the sea, Jacques Cousteau’s Ocean Tales will introduce a different marine animal or phenomenon in each episode, explain theories and facts associated with it, and provide advice on how to preserve and protect it. Gaspard de Chavagnac, CEO of Dargaud-Marina, explains that the series’ story lines are created using a mix of actual and imagined events, and are written with the help of Yves Paccalet, a scientist who traveled and wrote for Cousteau.

‘It took one year before we reached the right mixture between the action, the adventure and the science,’ he says. ‘On one side we had The Cousteau Society, who wanted it to be more doc. On the other side we had the broadcasters, who wanted more action/adventure. We had to learn how to mix those two things.’

Ocean Tales is a FF49 million (US$7 million) coproduction between public broadcaster France 3 and Canada’s Vivatoon. Although The Cousteau Society is not an official copro partner (no funds were contributed, Dargaud-Marina bought the rights to use the Cousteau name and the Calypso ship environment), the organization oversees all of the stories. Says de Chavagnac, ‘They have a look at all the scripts and the first storyboards to see that they respect a certain level of truth and reach a certain level of quality.’

Short and swift

Kaplan says Discovery Kids is primarily looking for half-hour series, although it will occasionally do one-offs that are tied to specials in which the rest of Discovery is also involved. As Discovery Kids’ target age group ranges from toddler to tween, each program segment should be no longer than 30 minutes.

Children’s factual programs produced by Marathon, such as Wild World and The Animal I Love, run between five and 13 minutes in length. Although broadcasters often run two 13-minute segments in succession, Bremond believes 30 minutes is a long time to hold a child’s attention. ‘It’s difficult to focus the attention of a child for 26 minutes,’ he explains. ‘It’s already difficult to keep the attention of a child for 22 minutes of an animated program that has a lot of effects and a lot going on… TV is a time of freedom. How can you expect them to sit for 30 minutes for a single subject matter?’

The Big Bang also runs 15 minutes in length, and while Nobbs occasionally feels rushed by the time constraints, he hesitates to loosen them. ‘The temptation for producers is to let the story stretch, and you can lose your audience if you let it stretch too long. For me, 20 minutes would be optimum.’

With a limited time frame, scripting is essential. According to Nobbs, at least five drafts of each script pass through three pairs of hands. ‘Clarity is so important with a young audience,’ he says. ‘There are makers of factual programs for kids who think it’s okay to just shoot loads of random pretty footage, put on some fast music, cut it very quickly, and do a voice-over. I firmly believe that ultimately those shows lose audience, because once the flashing lights stop and the kids try to work out what it’s about, they start turning off. If you spend time scripting the show, are clear about the story and the information you’re trying to get across, and carry the audience with you in the story, they won’t switch off.’

‘I found out that within the documentaries we do for children, we actually give more [information],’ reveals Bremond. ‘You have to create different pacing because [the programs] are shorter and you’re speaking to an audience that isn’t willing to spend too much time in front of the program. You need to be much more complete and much more specific.’

Viewer’s discretion doesn’t apply

Determining content requires special consideration when providing programs for young viewers. Conscious of causing kids to fear the water, de Chavagnac says Ocean Tales tries not to do story lines that involve tensions or accidents that can happen at sea. Nobbs avoids sex education questions, and treads softly when dealing with theories of natural selection.

‘When you’re producing programming of any kind for children, you have to think about your audience,’ says Kaplan. ‘We don’t have a show on evolution in development, but we wouldn’t deliberately steer clear of it as an issue. Discovery has done shows that have touched on evolution, but I’m not going to be the one to step out and head a debate on creation versus evolution. What we think about first and foremost is: what are kids interested in? It’s less what we’re afraid to do for them, and more what we think they want to know.’

Bremond, however, has had a different experience: ‘The people we’re selling to are willing to do children’s factual programming, so they’re pretty conservative in terms of content. We have to somehow tell that cheetahs and others hunt, but we can’t show it hunting or eating its prey like you can on a Discovery show. The buyers don’t want killings in children’s programs, but it’s what the children are interested in.’

Additionally, targeting a specific age group affects the scope of a subject. Explains Kaplan, ‘For a pre-schooler, geography is their neighborhood, not the other side of the globe, whereas for older kids, their interest in the real world is much more expansive and their ability to deal with abstract ideas grows as they grow.’ To deal with this, Discovery Kids will have a program block specifically for its pre-school audience.

Going to Market

The Discovery Kids digital channel was launched in the U.S. in 1996. A kids programming block also ran on The Discovery Channel between 9 A.M. and noon on Saturday and Sunday. Kaplan says now that Discovery has more experience in the kids business, it has eliminated the program block and increased the program, marketing and distribution resources invested in the 24-hour digital channel.

‘Discovery has wanted to be in the kids business in a bigger way for a long time, and we’ve been in the process of getting ready for that,’ she says. ‘The decision to do this was very careful, because of how crowded and aggressive the market is. There are some very big players in this market, and we needed to make sure there was room for us.’ With the Disney purchase of Fox Family (now ABC Family), Kaplan believes producers and viewers will welcome the newly invigorated channel.

Despite the high number of U.S. outlets catering to kids, Kaplan says science programming is minimal: ‘If you look at the American television environment for kids, there isn’t a whole lot of science. I don’t know why.’ Bremond says Marathon produces kids science programs with pubcasters in mind, but he’s been pleasantly surprised to find that niche channels, as well as private terrestrial channels, are also willing to buy. Even so, he has yet to crack the U.S. market. ‘The U.S. market is very specialized in animation,’ he explains. ‘Most of a broadcaster’s budget for kids programming goes to animation. We understand this and the way we make programs takes this into consideration. Also, broadcasters’ slots for animation are more flexible.’ Most of the footage for Marathon’s natural history programs for kids is repackaged. Bremond estimates a 70 x
5-minute series can be repackaged for $150,000; a 52 x 13-minute series costs $75,000 to repackage.

Although peddling an animated series (which will feature underwater scenes in 3-D animation), de Chavagnac believes there’s a growing global appetite for kids science programs. He also notes that a small number of partners were needed to pull together the financing for Ocean Tales. ‘For documentaries, it seems you need 15 sources of financing for one program,’ he says. ‘Meanwhile, we financed Cousteau with four different partners. It’s very strange, but documentaries in France are not very well financed, or well paid for by the
broadcasters. [Because they're] not in primetime, they’re not the same price. So, you have to multiply the sources.’

Ocean Tales is Dargaud-Marina’s first foray into kids science programming. In May 2001, the production company established a docs unit under Andre Annosse, former director of programming for the Odyssée channel. Two documentaries, Interpol (2 x 52 minutes) and The Strange Defeat of 1940 (52 minutes), are currently in production.

Kaplan agrees that, historically, animated series have been popular with global buyers, because they are easier to dub than live action shows. However, she believes the key to making children’s science programs – or any children’s program – appealing to the international marketplace is to provide kids with a voyeuristic element. ‘If it doesn’t feel like it could be kids from that country doing that show – if the sensibility is incredibly American, or Latin, or Asian – sometimes those shows don’t travel well,’ she explains. ‘It’s very important that kids around the world see themselves on television.’

Character trade

Spinning merchandising and licensing opportunities out of factual science programs for kids can reap lucrative returns. By licensing characters or building brand recognition, producers can tap into ancillary markets. ‘Having dipped my toe in the water to see how we can exploit The Big Bang brand, my feeling is that it requires a specialist,’ states Nobbs. ‘It’s a tough market out there and you need a professional who can create a range of products across the board. We are increasingly looking for ways to capitalize on the brand name. We had a book published this year, which we hope to get good returns on, but they’re not forthcoming as yet. We have a long way to go to capitalize on the potential that’s there.’

Kaplan says the age of one’s target audience helps determine a program’s ancillary market potential. ‘Programming for younger kids offers more of a licensing and merchandising opportunity than there would typically be for older kids (eight years and older),’ she explains. ‘Although there’s a lot of interest in science products for older kids, it tends not to be driven by television characters.’

Earlier is better than later when planning such initiatives, but Kaplan reiterates that program content makes or breaks a commission. ‘Kids are physical animals, so it’s great if they can do things and that’s very important to recognize and very valuable,’ she says. ‘The critical piece is: is it a great idea, will it make good television and is it something kids are going to want to get their hands on off-air, because it’s going to enhance the experience?’ Kaplan notes that the percentage of rights Discovery holds or shares to licensed product depends on how much it has invested in the program.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.