The “Holy Ground” Between Screen and Child

David Kleeman
4
November
2019

I delivered the talk below at the first FIMPU (Foro Internacional de Medios Públicos) conference in Bogota, Colombia, on October 30, 2019.

First, thanks to RTVC for inviting me to speak today. I should give you a little background to help understand the perspective I bring on public media.

I have worked in children’s media for 35 years – from the time when it was just small blocks on a few channels of TV. Today, it’s anything you want, when you want it, and where you want it.

Early in my career I spent five years working in programming for PBS – the US public broadcaster. It was a formative experience for me – a time when PBS was clear on its mission and creative in bringing it to life. Our content – for adults and children – was unique from what commercial channels were offering…but this was right at the dawn of cable’s niche channels, and we could predict a future in which public media’s diversified schedule would have to compete against channels offering the same types of programming full-time: science, nature, history, drama and children’s. We couldn’t possibly have predicted what “TV” would look like today.

Since then, I’ve become more of a strategist and analyst across children’s media. For the last five years, I’ve worked for Dubit, a research and strategy company that also makes games and other digital media for kids. We’ve worked for and with some of the world’s biggest companies – Facebook, LEGO, Nickelodeon, Netflix – but my heart remains wedded to the importance of public media, and I’ve written articles about why even the most commercial, profit-minded companies should support public service media, as well.

I’ve also had the chance to study TV from around the world through my work with the international children’s TV festival, PRIX JEUNESSE, where I serve as advisory board chair. Every other year, I have the chance to see several hundred recent programs from 60 different countries, mostly from public broadcasters.

Around 2001, I was asked by PBS and a foundation, to write a strategic study of what it meant to be public service media for children in the digital age. In preparation for today, I went back to that document to think about what had changed and what had remained the same.

I was not surprised to find that the definition of “children’s digital media” had changed radically since 2002; but I was surprised that the challenges and solutions I outlined remain entirely valid: use education as your guiding star; reflect the real and diverse lives of the children you serve; collaborate with others whose mission supports and expands your own; take creative chances and set goals beyond audience size.

Much of what I say today will borrow from that advice, updated for today’s media environment, and for Colombia’s unique situation and needs.

The iconic American children’s television presenter Fred Rogers said, “the space between the television set and child is very holy ground.” I believe that applies equally to all the screen devices through which we share entertainment, education, information and ideas with young people.

Children give us their two most valuable assets – their time and their trust. We get to decide how we’ll reward that investment. Is your purpose in connecting with children to share a meaningful story? To listen to and answer their questions and concerns? To invite them to be creators? To spark their curiosity and wonder? To make them laugh? To encourage them to learn about their family, neighborhood, city, country and world? To lay the foundation for how they can make a difference with their lives?

Or is your purpose to sell them something – whether a product or an idea? To gather data from their play and exploration in order to feed an algorithm? To keep them watching or clicking to the next advertisement? To portray them as victims in news stories?

By its very definition and mission, public media is designed to support and develop our children. So, today I want to offer you “five ways for public media to honor the ‘holy ground’ between screen and child.” They are:

1)   Make sure that all children are served;

2)   Connect children to their “home”;

3)   Invest in your country’s creative industries;

4)   Create memories that will last a lifetime; and

5)   Connect with children early and provide content for every age, or risk losing your audience for decades.

Let me take these one at a time.

Make sure that all children are served

Screens – not just TV – offer our children both a window on the world and a mirror on themselves. They trust that we – the adults who create and control the content – offer a clear window and a true mirror. From early childhood, they envision their place in society based on what we show them.

The actress Geena Davis, who created a research institute to study the role of girls and women in media, says “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”

My company, Dubit, recently conducted research in the UK and found that not only are certain types of people seen less often in stories; when they are included, often it is in stereotyped ways. For example, one surprising finding was that characters with a disability are not only infrequent, but when they do appear, are often villains or threats, or are just background characters filling in a scene.

Inclusion is important even when children can’t see it every day. One of my mentors – the former head of children’s programming for Danish public TV – used to send production teams to various countries with the instruction to show Danish children that kids everywhere grow up with “equal dignity even under unequal circumstances.” That’s a very powerful idea and reveals both the opportunity and obligation of public service media.

Colombia has a wide variety of departments, municipalities and districts; many environments with sea, rivers, mountains, rainforests and more; diverse cities and towns; and multiple cultures. There are many, many ways for a child to grow up in Colombia – each with its own story and great dignity.

A few years ago at the international children’s TV festival, I saw a Colombian show called La Lleva. In each episode, one child would go to visit a similar-aged child who was growing up in a totally different way – urban to rural, religious to non-religious, poor to wealthy, and so on. The program covered several days as the two children shared what they had in common and explored their differences. This show has been my model for how to make diversity engaging and connecting, not strange or distancing.

Connect children to their “home”

Who does Señal Colombia/Mi Señal compete with for young people’s attention? Certainly Netflix and YouTube; Nickelodeon, Disney and Discovery Kids. The head of Netflix says his company competes with Fortnite, and loses. We can assume that Señal Colombia, too, competes with all the different options for children’s time and attention – video, games, Minecraft, and so on.

Netflix says its biggest enemy is “sleep,” but we won’t consider that a competitor in this case; it’s more than a little scary to plot how to reduce children’s rest.

All the competitors I named can be many things, but there is one thing they cannot be: local.

I mentioned my mentor from Denmark. He had another thought for his producers: “when a child wakes up in the morning and turns on the television, how does she know where she is?” How, he asked, does Danmarks Radio remind children that they are Danish? Perhaps it’s hearing their language (for Colombia, that would be hearing your own dialects of Spanish) or perhaps it’s seeing familiar places. In a smaller country, it can even mean sometimes seeing someone you know on screen.

Live-action, non-fiction programming, based on the real lives of Colombian children, is something uniquely possible for public service media, and builds pride and a sense of “home.” But even animation can reflect the special humor, style and culture of its home.

Invest in your country’s creative industries

I made my first visit to Colombia in 2000; I came back to Bogota in 2010 and to Bucaramanga in 2014. In addition, I’ve been going to the international children’s TV festival – PRIX JEUNESSE – since 1988. So, I have seen a lot of Latin American children’s television over 30 years.

When I began, there was clearly creative talent in the region. The animation industry created wonderful stories and styles rooted in local and indigenous cultures. But there were no Latin American public media outlets directed to children and so the offerings tended to be single short films, hard to broadcast and even harder to sell internationally.

In Colombia, the change began with the Compromiso Nacional de Televisión de Calidad para la Infancia in 2004, with commitments for investment in production, distribution and promotion of home-made children’s programming with the best interests and understanding of Colombian children at the core.

Over the following years, Argentina, Chile and Colombia, in particular, launched children’s channels or blocks within public media and brought new life to the region’s production companies. Señal Colombia children’s productions have since been nominated for International Emmy Awards, the prestigious Japan Prize for educational media, and the PRIX JEUNESSE International. Its productions and co-productions have won awards at PRIX JEUNESSE IberoAmericano. Throughout Latin America, there are thriving creative companies whose work is getting attention at the global markets.

Certainly, there were many factors at work, as the media industries have grown worldwide with the arrival of new platforms and services. But without the strong foundation of a public broadcaster that was empowered to encourage, invest in and broadcast domestic content, there wouldn’t likely be a Colombian creative community ready to take advantage of that global trend.

Lay a foundation of memories that will last a lifetime.

Last week, I was in Amsterdam. I looked out the window of my hotel room and saw a small rabbit on the grass. For some reason, the first thing that came to my mind was the theme song from a Dutch children’s TV series – Little Rabbit of the Dunes – that I saw in 1988 at my very first international children’s TV festival.

Now, I’m of an age where I have trouble remembering what I had for breakfast. But, I could not only bring back the characters and style of the show, but also the music, from over 30 years ago. This is the power of children’s media. This is the responsibility you hold when you tell stories to young people.

I mentioned American presenter Fred Rogers at the beginning of my talk. This past year was the 50th anniversary of his series premiere and would have been his 90th birthday. There have been two documentaries about his work, and next month there will be a feature film with Tom Hanks.

Why all this attention? Because every day, Mister Rogers looked into the TV camera and spoke as though he was talking to just one person. He made a mass medium personal. And the messages he conveyed were so emotional and so essential that people remember them 50 years later – three generations of children grew up with his wisdom. His was not a program that could be made for commercial media – there were no products to buy, commercials would have seemed intrusive and inappropriate, and all he had to “sell” was caring.

In an article about Fred Rogers, a grown woman said, “I can’t even read his name without tearing up. Sesame Street taught me to read, and Mister Rogers taught me to hope.” That is TV that stays with you for a lifetime.

I should also mention the NHK/Japan series Pythagora Switch. It debuted in 2002 as a preschool early math series with puppets, animation, and simple, clever ways of visualizing solutions. Almost 15 years later, it returned as Pythagora Switch Advanced, looking very much like the pre-school version, including the puppets, but with high-school level math. This was a brilliant use of nostalgia to create effective teaching to teens.

There’s another lesson in that story – one that makes my final point:

Connect with children early and provide content for every age, or risk losing your audience for decades

Britain’s media regulator Ofcom just announced this week that fewer than 50% of 16-24 year olds now watch any BBC channel at least once a week. This is the first time it has been less than half of this age group. In the US, PBS has difficulty keeping kids viewing its TV service beyond age 6 (its digital services remain popular somewhat longer) and doesn’t get them back until well into adulthood.

With young people having so many options, public service media can’t afford to take their loyalty for granted. It is much harder to win fans back once they’ve left, than it is to keep them connected with a stream of content for all ages.

In my experience, worldwide, the best media for children occurs when there is balance between public service and commercial offerings. Public media then needs to compete with its commercial rivals on quality and engagement – to be as popular – without compromising its mission.

At the same time, commercial media can’t afford to surrender young audiences to its noncommercial competitors, and so it needs to be seen as “safe” and “beneficial” - parent-friendly, so to speak.

The two – public and commercial – exist in balance, each challenging the other to do its best work.

Not that this is easy. High quality public media is hard work – it needs careful development, advisors who understand how children grow and learn, formative and summative research, and best-practice production techniques.

Good enough isn’t good enough when it comes to our children.

And when tough economic times come, it’s often children’s services that are the first to be cut. It’s safer and cheaper just to build on what’s worked before than to engage in creative innovation. But public support is always best used for what the private sector can’t - or won’t – do, and there are few areas where this is more clear – and more important – than with children’s public service media.

Note - this post originally appeared on LinkedIn. Connect with David at https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidkleeman/

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