Finding the Sweet Spot in Kids TV

Feb 12, 2007  •  Post A Comment

By Doug Grimmett
Special to TelevisionWeek

“Adults are just obsolete children.” — Dr. Seuss

If the old doctor’s right, then we owe it to ourselves to fight that obsolescence kicking and screaming. Not literally, of course-there are better ways to hold onto childhood. I choose design.

At Primal Screen, we’ve been providing broadcast design, animation, music and sound to all kinds of children’s programming from the time we opened our doors in 1995. Deciphering and reconciling what kids should experience and what they want to experience has been a full-time job for us, and it has been a fascinating, entertaining and gratifying job at that.

Now, creative agencies and children’s broadcasters are experiencing a radical shift in how they market to kids. Today, kids are demanding that we craft messages in a whole new way. The Internet keeps growing in importance as broadcasters seek to develop connections that extend beyond the 30-second promo, and even the youngest kids are now tuned in to an entertainment universe in which traditional broadcast is a fast-shrinking portion.

To reach the new generation, we have to take them more seriously. We have to closely consider the way their minds are developing. What is age appropriate? What specific educational and entertainment value is provided by the curriculum? What form will privacy issues take?

We’ve been fortunate at Primal Screen to work with PBS Kids (www.pbskids.org). We helped develop the PBS Kids brand back in 2001, and did the same thing four years later for PBS Kids Sprout (www.sproutonline.com). This joint venture by Comcast, PBS, Sesame Workshop and HIT Entertainment included a digital cable channel, video-on-demand service and Web site especially for preschoolers. Also in 2005, PBS Kids asked us to help create an interactive tool to help kids learn the fine art of storytelling. The result is Stop & Go (www.pbskids.org/stopandgo).

Stop & Go is what we like to call a fully integrated broadcast Web activity. In our research, we quickly discovered that preschool kids are every bit as intuitive when interfacing with the online world as their parents are-and often more so. They simply get it. Knowing that helped us find new ways to challenge the kids.

Stop & Go works like this: Kids watching PBS Kids are drawn into stories starring familiar PBS Kids characters in unfamiliar predicaments. As soon as those basic elements are established, the story stops. The kids are asked to go to the Stop & Go Web site, where they can complete the story with as much or as little help as they like. That organic, seamless transition between media gives every participant a challenging and satisfying viewing experience, not to mention a rewarding brand experience.

Kids need more interactive and immersive online environments. They need to be challenged intellectually and creatively. Building the brand means making an impression, not just a statement.

This is where so-called “rich” content comes in. Truly immersive online presences aren’t just more entertaining and educational; they also build brand equity and awareness in a meaningful way. It may seem counterintuitive to some, but offering more and more ways to experience a brand actually solidifies that brand rather than complicating it.

It all sounds good, but like so many great far-reaching and deep-diving concepts, this one is surely easier said than done. At Primal Screen, we have come up with some relatively simple rules for creating new media for children’s entertainment:

First, make sharing easy. Critics thought the Internet would make us all antisocial. They couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s never been easier to stay in touch with far-flung friends and family, share pictures and videos and passions, and make brand-new friends with similar interests. It all comes down to sharing, and sharing depends on common interests and values. Today’s brands have to connect and engage with kids, not just try to sell them something.

Second, think of brands as descriptive filters. The number of educational and entertainment choices for kids and their parents is already overwhelming, even as it continues to grow. A strong and trustworthy brand can provide invaluable direction for parents and kids alike. It’s most important to firmly focus the essence of your brand on what you want to impart or accomplish, and then stick to that voice.

Third, don’t get distracted. For the kind of relationship that kids’ programmers hope to foster, ethics and integrity are of utmost importance. Potential viewers need to know you mean what you’re saying, especially when they’re young. Don’t be tempted by the shiny apple. Stay aware of trends, of course, but maintain your brand personality over the long term. Developing relationships, especially with preschool kids, depends on conveying a feeling of stability.

Most of all we should remember that kids are kids, and they need stability and nurturing as much as they need fun. And even if grown-ups are obsolete children, kids are not unformed adults. We should do all we can to better understand them and their needs. The better we make their world, the better they’ll make ours.

Doug Grimmett is founder and creative director of Atlanta’s Primal Screen, and has worked with, among others, PBS Kids, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., Disney, Animania, Cartoon Network, and Boomerang.