Guest Commentary: Kids Deserve Shows That Don’t Talk Down to Them

Apr 19, 2009  •  Post A Comment

American satirist H.L. Mencken once said: “No one ever went broke under-estimating the intelligence of the American public.”
Take P.T. Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid, for example, purportedly the shriveled remains of a tiny washed-up mermaid that wowed audiences in 1842 and essentially launched Barnum’s career as the “world’s greatest showman.”
His approach worked back then because people had never been exposed to such an oddity.
Now, however, thanks to our instant-information world, audiences are a bit sharper, and such an approach would never have the draw it did in Barnum’s day. Instead of a Feejee mermaid, we’d clearly see the head and torso of a monkey sewn to the back half of a fish. We’ve also figured out how to spell Fiji.
When it comes to children’s television animation, things also are different. Kids are a lot smarter than they used to be … a lot smarter than some television executives seem to believe. Why? Because kids are treated differently now.
When I was a kid, my mom used to open the front door and tell us to get out of the house after Saturday cartoons. And we did … until we got hungry. We lived the life of free-range chickens, running around and making up games with other kids in the neighborhood.
Now almost every element of a kid’s life is planned. On Saturdays, they’re hustled from skating to kung fu to dance. After school, they face a mind-numbing amount of homework, and they live on the Internet.
But they also play a larger part in their parents’ lives. They’re more likely to help choose what’s for dinner and what to watch on television.
Combine that interaction with the Web’s instant access to information, and today’s kids are light-years ahead of their predecessors.
And yet, some programmers around the world haven’t really considered this. They’ll rip off an old “Ninja Turtles” plotline, paste new characters over the top and subject it to the latest 3-D or Flash animation technique. Don’t forget the insults that pass for jokes and a lot of superfluous movement (even MORE action), and we’ve got a show! Will the kids tune in? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bank on it.
We have to update our approach to kids entertainment and realize that they’re not going to fall for the old Feejee Mermaid. Is it original or interesting? Are we simply writing for kids or are we writing well? And how is our approach impacting tune-in?
Kids are so bored with the programming we provide them that they’re actually sneaking into adult territory to watch cartoons like “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy.” As much as I love these shows, we can all agree that our kids probably shouldn’t be watching them. So, how do we win back tweens and younger viewers?
Simple: If the story is good and the characters are solid, the show will transcend style and medium. Yep, it all comes back to the writing. If you want to keep them tuned in, don’t underestimate them.
One of the most common executive notes we get in TV animation is, “Kids won’t understand this joke” —a huge frustration for me, as I’ve always believed that kids are much brighter than they are perceived. We should be writing up for the viewer, not down for the kids. That was our approach on Disney’s “Phineas and Ferb,” and it’s how I work now when developing animated series concepts for Lincoln Butterfield.
By writing shows that appeal to both kids and adults, series creators stand a better chance of promoting a family viewing experience, where mom and dad share the couch with their kids—a huge plus with today’s kids already more intertwined in the lives of their parents. If a kid doesn’t understand the joke, he knows how to pause the DVR and ask his parents to explain it.
With good writing, you could probably even make the Feejee Mermaid into a series. Well, maybe not. (Some things are better left alone.) But the level of thoughtful writing that could make that premise good is what I would be willing to watch with my kids.
Robert Hughes is executive producer-partner at Burbank, Calif.-based Lincoln Butterfield Animation.


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