Reality Report: Little Big Shows

Realscreen talks to network execs Didi O'Hearn and Eli Lehrer, as well as executive producer Robin Ashbrook, about the burgeoning genre of kid-focused unscripted programming in the U.S. (Pictured: Fox's MasterChef Junior)
June 8, 2016

Kid-focused unscripted programming is all the rage in the U.S., with established franchises adding “junior” editions, and family-friendly formats warming hearts and winning audiences.

Earlier this year, China’s state-run agency responsible for the supervision of state-owned enterprises engaged in the television, radio and film industries ruled that children – particularly children of celebrities – would be banned from appearing on Chinese reality television.

The guidelines issued by the State Administration for Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television appear to have been put in place as a way to shield children from the vulnerabilities of  “overnight fame.” Implemented in April, the new regulations will look to quell the broadcast of popular non-fiction series featuring famous entertainers and their children – a genre that has become increasingly popular with Chinese viewers in recent years.

The sanctions fly in the face of a growing North American trend that has seen kid-centric reality formats blossom into a booming television market in the U.S. With Fox’s MasterChef Junior riding a ratings wave since its September 2013 debut – it recently averaged 4.12 million viewers in its fourth season – other networks have carved out a space for themselves in the niche market.

Little Big Shots - Season 1

Contestant Mia Negovetic belts out a tune on NBC’s Little Big Shots.

NBC made big noise when it sneak-previewed Little Big Shots, a child-focused talent/variety show with The Voice as its lead-in, and wound up with the biggest broadcast premiere or preview of an unscripted series since The X Factor on Fox in 2011. Hosted by Steve Harvey and produced by Warner Horizon Television, East 112 Street Productions and Ellen DeGeneres’ A Very Good Production shingle, the series was renewed for a second season after two episodes.

Viacom-owned channel Spike and sister network Nickelodeon are preparing the hour-long stunt Lip Sync Battle Jr., with Fox moving further into the genre with So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation – the junior edition of the dancing competition – in late May. Meanwhile, FYI’s culinary competition series Man vs. Child: Chef Showdown, in which talented young cooks face off against professionally trained chefs, returned with its second season in March.

For Robin Ashbrook, showrunner and exec producer of the MasterChef franchise and Little Big Shots, there are two reasons behind the surge of kids reality programming. The most evident, he says, is the current lack of feel-good series in North America that allow for family appointment and co­ viewing opportunities around the television. And buffeting the boom of miniaturized adaptations and original formats are copycat series.

“A lot of the thought is that there’s some kind of chemistry and simple magic of putting kids on TV – that you can put them on any crap format and it will be great, which is not the case,” he tells realscreen.

What does work, according to Ashbrook, is when networks and studios manage to unearth a great format coupled with a great host first. Only then should the children themselves be introduced to the camera and afforded a stage on which to shine.

“The emotional side of it is usually important to me,” Ashbrook notes. “We never eliminate kids individually and we always avoid the word ‘eliminate.’ We try to not [call them] ‘pressure and elimination challenges,’ so the vocabulary is different within the show and with that comes a different spirit.”

The feel-good approach has worked with MasterChef Junior and again with Little Big Shots, which grabbed an average of 12.3 million viewers over its first season.

Project Runway Junior

Lifetime’s Project Runway Junior

While producers and broadcasters alike must take care to ensure children aren’t demoralized, for a franchise’s kid-focused spin-off to succeed, challenges should not be overly simplified. It’s a practice that A+E Networks-owned channel Lifetime has managed to exploit through its Project Runway franchise after having stumbled with Project Runway: Threads, the self-contained fashion competition featuring teenagers.

“As part of that format, the children worked with their parents to design and execute the clothes,” said Eli Lehrer, then senior VP, head of non-fiction programming at Lifetime (now heading up MTV2). “I think we quickly realized that a large part of the appeal of these kinds of kids shows was diluted when they had adult partners.”

With Project Runway: Junior, which launched with a 0.34 rating (P18-49) and has been renewed for a sophomore season, Lifetime made the “very conscious decision” to duplicate the unadulterated Runway format by treating children like adults, giving them the same challenges and creative constraints.

“We didn’t want people to watch it and think this is a show for kids,” Lehrer says. “We love that it’s resonated with kids, but we wanted the core Runway fan to watch it and think that the fashion being executed was on par with what you see on Runway – a seamless transition.”

Food Network marked its latest foray into the genre on May 23 with the launch of Kids BBQ Championship. The cooking competition is the latest in a series of shows aimed at unearthing prodigies in the kitchen, with last year’s Kids Baking Championship delivering the network’s highest-rated Monday 8 p.m. hour ever while also capturing nearly 30% of the A25-54 audience. Later this year, the Scripps Networks Interactive-owned channel will feature some of the network’s brightest young stars in a Food Network Star spin-off junior edition.

“Our first reaction to the [Kids BBQ Championship] idea was to wonder whether [having] kids grilling was even safe, but then we saw some of these kids in action,” said Didi O’Hearn, senior VP of programming and development at Food Network and Cooking Channel. “It was clear they knew what they were doing and had the skill and passion to compete in what was previously considered an adult world.”

Food Network Kids BBQ

Contestant Tyler Zager prepares his dish for the chicken BBQ challenge, as seen on Food Network’s Kid’s BBQ Championship.

That’s the fundamental challenge that differentiates producing children-focused reality from traditional unscripted shows.

While child labor laws vary from state to state, California’s regulations are seen as the industry barometer. The Golden State has laid out clear guidelines specifying the amount of hours a child star can work, the educational prerequisites that need to be provided through on-set teachers, and ensuring that 15% of the child’s gross earnings are placed into a trust.

 “There’s a perception that if you shoot outside of the school year in the summer you can do what you’d like; that’s actually not the case,” Ashbrook explains. “There are working guidelines and restrictions of how long you can work the kids, and rightly so.

“We’ll spend 10 hours with the adults and fi vehours with the kids,” Ashbrook continued with regards to MasterChef Junior. “It’s great to go, ‘We’ve got to do all of this in fi ve hours.’ There’s no overtime, there’s no ‘We’ll just take another 40 minutes’ like there might be with any other TV show – you get the show done within five hours and that’s it. You do what you can.”

From a health and safety standpoint, if there are two medics in the kitchen for MasterChef proper, the ratio for the miniature edition sees one medic to every two children.

“We don’t give them rubber knives, they don’t work with pretend fire – everything is real, and so it should be because they’re working in a kitchen,” Ashbrook maintains.

“You have to be very cognizant that you’re not setting these kids up for failure or disappointing the viewer,” says Lehrer, “and so you just have to be very judicious in your casting so that you’re really finding kids that perform at an exceptional level.”

  • This article first appeared in the current May/June 2016 issue of realscreen magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.