Kids get real

While the adult world can't seem to get enough of reality and non-fiction shows, the genre is only just beginning to take off in kids' programming. Why the lag? 'Kids' entertainment has been neglected,' says Annie Miles, director of the Talent Kids division at Talent Television, a production company based in London. 'Kids' shows cost money - the same amount as adult shows,' she says. 'But they only get a fraction of the budget.' Even a bare-bones production costs £15,000 to £20,000 (us$28,000 to $37,000) per episode, says Miles. An adventure program rings in at £100,000 ($186,000) per episode.
June 1, 2006

While the adult world can’t seem to get enough of reality and non-fiction shows, the genre is only just beginning to take off in kids’ programming. Why the lag? ‘Kids’ entertainment has been neglected,’ says Annie Miles, director of the Talent Kids division at Talent Television, a production company based in London. ‘Kids’ shows cost money – the same amount as adult shows,’ she says. ‘But they only get a fraction of the budget.’ Even a bare-bones production costs £15,000 to £20,000 (US$28,000 to $37,000) per episode, says Miles. An adventure program rings in at £100,000 ($186,000) per episode.

One way to boost funding is to sell formats. Adult reality shows like American Idol, Big Brother and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? have already been doing this for years and have proven to be lucrative. Now the concept is finally percolating down to kids’ programming. ‘If you go back 10 or 20 years, there wasn’t much of this happening,’ says Miles. ‘Now that has changed dramatically.’ Networks know when a show works and has proven to be popular. The set is designed; the format is laid out. The show may need some tweaking for sensitivities according to culture or age group, but essentially the production is done. It’s not necessarily cheaper, but it minimizes the risk.

Part of the allure of large, branded shows is their mass appeal. Big Brother, for example, is a hit with both adults and children. ‘When [producers] structure the show, they very much have the teen girl in mind,’ says Gary Pope, a partner with London-based Kids Industries. ‘That’s implicit in the structure; it’s for 12-year-olds and upwards. Whenever it’s on, it ranks number one for children.’ In fact, kids are also watching many other adult reality shows. Nielsen stats show Fear Factor was NBC’s hottest show among kids aged two to 11 for the 2003/2004 season. Spider-eating contests may not be the first thing that springs to mind when one thinks of wholesome toddler television, but kids love it. At times the show even outpaced The Wonderful World of Disney and The Simpsons for that same age group.

If all that sounds a little disheartening to producers who fear that established brands like Next Top Model may eat up broadcasters’ budgets while pushing out more original programming, look on the bright side: if you do manage to put together a successful show, you could end up with a fantastic source of revenue. Miles’ Talent Television, for example, developed a children’s show for the BBC called Best Of Friends, a reality show that puts friendships to the test with various challenges. Now two years old, it consistently ranks among the top ten children’s shows in the UK. ‘Because of that, I’m getting lots of inquiries [from international programmers] asking if there’s a show for them,’ says Miles.

If you do plan to dive into children’s reality and non-fiction, there are a few caveats to keep in mind. ‘Kids’ reality television requires a lot more sensitivity,’ says Miles. ‘Reality television can be a real torture chamber. That is not what kids’ reality television is about. You can’t take advantage of a kid’s naïveté.’ Still, producers push the boundaries, albeit cautiously. When BBC4 and Endemol coproduced Teen Big Brother, which aired in 2003, the show had already done a discreet test run online, and ‘it was closely monitored by psychologists,’ says Kids Industries’ Pope. And that’s for a show where all the contestants are 18 years old – downright elderly in kid years.

Reality programming for children and teens is only going to get hotter in the near future because they are fascinated with the social dynamics of which they’re just starting to gain awareness. ‘There’s something very fundamental about reality TV and kids,’ says Pope. ‘From the age of seven, kids begin to reject animated properties. It’s just the way our brains develop. They begin to anchor in realism.’ Until age six or seven, the most important people in children’s lives are family members and friends. But once they’re in grade school, they begin to learn about peer groups, and it’s a huge transformation for them. ‘Being part of a gang is so important,’ says Miles. True for adults too, which is why we all seem stuck on reality shows.

The trouble with kids is that they don’t always know the difference between reality TV and reality. ‘Something like Pop Idol gives children the false impression that it’s very easy to become famous,’ says Janine Spencer, director of the Centre for Research in Infant Behaviour at Brunel University in London. ‘It makes these things look easier than they are. Reality TV is a misnomer because the contestants are selected after thousands of people audition,’ says Spencer. If you’re watching it as a child you may strive to be like the contestants on Next Top Model or Big Brother – which Spencer says has attracted huge numbers of four-year-olds as regular viewers. ‘There’s nothing wrong with striving to be like someone on TV, as long as it’s attainable’ – and appropriate.

The other problem with children watching adult reality shows, says Spencer, is that the shows tend to center around ‘glammy jobs,’ like modeling or being a rock star. Instead, shows should have a ‘positive moral architecture,’ says Miles, which means programming should stimulate kids to ask questions. Spencer agrees: ‘It’s good to get kids engaged,’ she says. ‘When we’re watching television, we’re almost in a sleep state.’

Which brings us to the subject of what you mustn’t include in kids reality shows. Aside from the obvious – sex, drugs, violence and anything that looks too dangerous – it’s not so much about what can or can’t be included. Instead, programmers should focus on whether the show is respectful of children and their developmental limitations. That doesn’t mean you can’t try pushing the boundaries a little. The CBBC’s (Auntie’s kids outlet) weekend game show Dick and Dom in Da Bungalow was massively successful while also highly controversial. The gross-out show made tons of jokes about bodily functions – endlessly hilarious to kids – and featured contests like throwing ‘Creamy Muck Muck’ (a custard-like substance) at each other and holding baby races. Dick and Dom guests, including children, were often ridiculed on the show. ‘Half of the grown-ups said, ‘This show is dreadful because it takes the piss out of kids,” says Miles. ‘The other half said, ‘This show is the best thing that’s ever happened to kids. It understands what kids find funny.” Kids loved Dick and Dom enough to keep it afloat for five seasons.

Whatever reality shows you may develop, a crucial part for kids is a great website. Kids and teens are the ones downloading clips and games, and voting to support or eliminate participants. ‘Cell phones, iPods and handheld technology take you into very interesting areas,’ says Miles. In the UK, mobile TV is starting to gain popularity in the 13 to 19 age group. Miles says it won’t be long before eight- to 11-year-olds have it too. ‘Getting kids to be in the same place at the same time is difficult. If mom says, ‘Right, I’m going shopping,’ then you’ve lost your viewer. But what if you combine TV with a video-on-demand download library? Everyone is speculating, nobody knows what will happen, but it’s going to be fascinating.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.