A couple recent events have gotten me thinking about diversity in children's TV content:
- Last week, I had dinner with a longtime friend who is a partner in a top-shelf arts media production company. We first met over 20 years ago when Scott was developing an original television story ballet for children; it's still in development.
- This week, I hosted the ever-popular PRIX JEUNESSE Suitcase in New York - a full day screening of children's TV from around the world. As ever, the highly engaged audience of kids media professionals took in the creative risk-taking they were watching on the screen and asked, "Why don't we ever do that here?"
At the advent of streaming media, many of us eagerly anticipated a cornucopia of diverse children's genres, formats and content in a "post-gatekeeper" environment. We were enticed by the combination of democratic distribution platforms with widely available and affordable pro-quality production tools.
Why is this so important? When I was young (hey, I was...once), my world was physically circumscribed by how far I was allowed to wander - my friends were the kids within walking distance or, later, cycling range. It didn't matter whether we had the same interests or hobbies; we were all we had. The same was true of the media we consumed - with only a few channels of TV (yes, there was TV) - we all watched the same mass-audience programs.
Today, young people may engage with various pursuits during a typical day, donning and shedding personas like so many Fred Rogers cardigans. They're aided in this by technologies that erase physical and geographic boundaries, helping them find natural peer groups based on common interests, not just proximity.
The science geek at school in New York might compare robot designs with a class in Tokyo, then come home and play duets by Skype with a musician in Amsterdam. After, she might engage in a MMOG with a peer in Rio, watch and comment on an online video made by a friend in Johannesburg, and take part in planning a political action with a virtual organization of like-minded teens across the U.S.
Of course, there's no virtual substitute for kicking around a soccer ball or performing in a play. Many children's zones for permitted exploration is woefully small, though, so they rely on a mix of real and virtual connections to expand their perspective.
Has the video universe (whether scheduled or on-demand) kept up with young people's embrace of diverse possibilities? I'm not so sure.
Commissions and acquisitions, at least as reported in trade and public papers, still usually focus on relatively familiar genres and formats, albeit with expanded content vision and a strong "through-line" of what differentiates each service.
Moreover, it still feels like there's a marketing focus on being "safe" rather than challenging (and by that I mean intellectually challenging, not safety missteps as seem to have been made by YouTube Kids' early filtering). Young people learn and grow when confronted with ideas that extend their reach and grasp ("The Vygotsky Channel" or ZPDTV?).
Subscription services carry a unique advantage: they can communicate directly with parents about teaching and content philosophy, and make sure parents know what their children will find ( "in our programs, kids will use real tools to build things for themselves.")
I've organized talks in the past around a favorite, iconic song from the Broadway show "[title of show]." The refrain is "I'd rather be nine people's favorite thing than a hundred people's ninth favorite thing." This could be a unique selling proposition for a VOD provider - wooing subscribers with content that might not garner massive views, but that would be essential and meaningful to a core audience. It's a "long tail" view, a bet that the incremental cost of hosting a niche series is small compared to the loyalty of a customer because you touch his kids' hearts or minds, not just fill their time.
Multiplying distribution platforms are great, but it costs money to produce quality content, and that's the part of the equation we haven't yet solved. A VOD provider could see the potential in an arts performance library for kids, but do enough quality shows exist to fill the pipeline, or could they afford to commission new works?
The producers are out there, with new and compelling ideas. The streaming media entrepreneurs are there, as well; I've met with enough who are developing new models and approaches. The changing meaning of "channels" in the streaming media world alone indicates that distributors are eager to reinvent discovery, engagement and retention.
So many important things are being yanked out from under kids' feet in the schools - play, activity, arts education and arts creation. We have an unprecedented chance to fill in the blanks in kids' lives - to support their diverse passions and open their minds to new possibilities. Let's not hold our breadth.
This post appeared originally in Kidscreen.