This one’s for the kids

Reality TV and factual entertainment aren't just for adults -or teens - anymore.
May 1, 2010

The boom in reality shows for kids has seen production companies that normally specialize in scripted and animated children’s programs adding factual entertainment to their repertoires. Likewise, program-makers that specialize in factual are adding children’s divisions to their companies and kids channels are adding more factual to their slates. Even Cartoon Network has added live-action and reality programs to its remit. Clearly, kids are craving factual and reality. But how much does what they want differ from adult reality fare?

Not much, says Jocelyn Hamilton, VP programming and production for Corus Kids, which includes Canadian kids channel YTV. ‘I don’t think it’s any different from the reasons adults like watching reality TV,’ says Hamilton. When YTV approaches reality television, says Hamilton, it is careful not to talk down to children, and to do that the channel encourages producers to treat a show as if it was being made for an adult audience. ‘[Kids] are capable of a lot more than you think they are.’

The sentiment rings true for many kids producers as well. While London-based Handle and Spout Limited doesn’t do adult programming, the prodco made its move into kids’ reality by treating the series as if it were an adult format. Farm Camp is Handle and Spout’s first reality show and it follows a group of city kids transplanted in the British countryside where, with the help of Farmer Paul, they discover where their food comes from while participating in challenges such as milking cows and tending to pigs. Made for CITV, the series simply places the kids on the farm and watches them interact with plants and animals, and asks them what they learned at the end.

‘Kids want what adults want, they want good stories,’ says Handle and Spout founder and creative director Paul Shuttleworth. ‘It’s got to be a really strong format, it’s got to be a scenario that you’re really going to engage with and it’s got to be a real experience for those kids as well.’

Toronto-based kids prodco 9 Story Entertainment also felt the draw of reality programming for its audience and answered the call with Survive This, a Survivor-like kids series hosted by Survivorman star Les Stroud. ‘Stroud had a large adult following but also had a large boy following for Survivorman,’ says 9 Story president and CEO Vince Commisso.

The co-viewership of shows like American Idol, Survivor and even MythBusters has led to the creation of similar reality programming for kids. Treating the production of kids’ reality similarly to the production of adult series has also resulted in co-viewership for kids’ reality.

While producers and broadcasters are careful not to dumb down programming or talk down to the viewers, it’s important to note that kids don’t want their programs to be exactly the same as Mom and Dad’s shows. Commisso says the tone for Survive This has to be a bit gentler by being sensitive to the needs of contestants, as well as its viewers, by raising the safety net for the children and not making it an elimination show like Survivor. ‘You really can’t put kids in the situation where you tell them they’re fired,’ says Commisso. ‘By the time you do that with adults they’ve gone through life experiences, succeeded or failed on certain things and they know that they’ve failed in this particular reality endeavor and therefore are fired. When you deal with kids it’s more, ‘Do you think you can do it?’ This is a personal journey. I think that’s a very important distinction.’

Similarly, Hamilton says The Next Star – a talent competition à la Idol that sees six contestants vie to be the next young singing sensation – is less about the competition and more about following the journey of its contestants. ‘It’s a mentorship show, not an elimination show,’ says Hamilton. ‘Our audience gets to know them really well and gets to see all the flaws, the things they’re afraid of, and lets them work through all of that throughout the series. It’s empowering and I think our audience lives vicariously through those top six.’

Living vicariously through characters and participants is part of the appeal of reality series for kids over fictional fare. Tricon Films and Television, a Toronto-based producer and distributor which made the move into children’s programming in 2008 with The Next Star, finds that media-savvy kids enjoy interacting with shows and their stars through Facebook, Twitter and any site that gives them further insight into the people they’re watching on TV. When asked why reality shows translate well to cross-platform opportunities for kids, Jon Rutherford, Tricon’s VP international sales and acquisitions, says it’s because the ‘stars’ are real and the online experience allows an audience to become more involved with them.

‘Children are so passionate,’ says Rutherford. ‘When they’re interested in something they want everybody to know about it and all of these new means of media and alternative methods to get your thoughts across are exactly what kids are all about now. And these types of programs have so much interaction [built in within] them that it just fits their interests.’

Outside of ‘interactivity,’ other words that come up a lot when talking about reality programs for kids are ‘aspiration’ and ‘inspiration.’ Rob Swartz, VP of original series for the U.S. Cartoon Network, says the reality shows on his channel are meant to entertain first and foremost, but he’s also looking for programming that empowers the net’s audience and gives them something to strive for. There are currently two original reality programs on Cartoon Network: Dude, What Would Happen and Destroy, Build, Destroy. On Dude the three kids who host the show think up strange events, such as how many balloons it would take to lift a Sumo wrestler off the ground, and conduct experiments to see what would happen if that were to occur. Destroy, Build, Destroy sees host Andrew W.K. guide two teams of kids through the destruction of various objects, the construction of two new vehicles out of the rubble, and a competition between both teams to see whose machine outlasts the other. ‘They’re getting to do really, really cool stuff. Stuff that we think our target audience would aspire to do and, truthfully, can apply to do,’ says Swartz.

When looking to expand the types of programs on the channel, Swartz and his team at Cartoon Network looked at what youth – boys in particular, as the Cartoon Network skews male – are fascinated by. Limitless imagination factored greatly, and in keeping with the network’s regular base of programming, the programs had to be visually stimulating and humorous to keep the audience’s attention. ‘I think that they crave action, they crave fun and funny,’ says Swartz. ‘But ultimately I think that the wish fulfillment of [the programming] is targeted towards them. Having the types of wishes that are fulfilled be unique and specifically tailored towards an audience that doesn’t always get serviced in that way is a big component.’

Commisso agrees that the aspirational concept is a big factor. ‘It’s no different from when my generation were kids [and we] aspired to have superhero powers,’ says Commisso. ‘Now it’s a little bit more mature and you aspire for accomplishments that are very attainable, and that’s what we present to a kid audience with shows like [Survive This].’

If seeing traditional kids producers and networks pick up factual isn’t enough to convince program-makers and buyers that reality and factual are working with a youth audience, just look at the numbers. Cartoon Network’s move into reality, as a part of the channel’s broader strategy to extend its programming variety, ruffled some feathers among audiences but has resulted in record-breaking ratings for the reality programming’s time slots. Dude, What Would Happen was the number one show in its time slot among boys ages six to 11 across both broadcast and cable and Destroy, Build, Destroy has the same distinction in its slot.

‘The shows are really fun and we’re proud of them,’ maintains Swartz. ‘I think the customer’s always right. The audience speaks.’

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.