Do Kids' TV Shows Have to Be So Bad?
Television is a big part of our lives. Partially, it is situational - the television is part of our family room/kitchen set up - and partially, it is just who we are.
Because I am physically around for a lot of my kids' TV watching, I have hours of programming from the Family Chanel, YTV, Disney XD and Teletoon wedged into my brain. Ask me about a certain Wizards of Waverly Place episode or the lyrics to the Johnny Test theme song and I can tell you. It is not a skill I am particularly proud of.
This weekend, I was asked by someone who works in kids' television what I would like to see in children's programming, especially for tweens. I think my answers surprised him.
I would like to see:
Less gender stereotypes: Girls are not just smart or stupid. They aren't obsessed with being popular or being pretty or getting a boyfriend. Boys are not all geeks or dorks or smart alecs. And neither is defined by their clothes.
More complex characters: In many shows, people are only a type: the rich but stupid girl, the dumb but cute boy; the nerd; the country girl; the valedictorian; the athlete. The adults are even worse. Thye generally consist of: man-crazy single women, mean teachers, dorky caretakers, bufoonish dads, competitive moms. You know what I mean.
Less focus on the divisions in high school: High school does not have break down into social groups lording over each other. There seems to be a weird law of kids' TV-watching habits, kids as young as eight watch shows about kids in high school (while kids in high school watch adult shows). It sets them up to think that high school is only about social status. Interestingly, there are very few shows about actual tweens.
Less focus on sexuality: Most shows rely on the acquisition of getting a boyfriend or girlfriend as the major plotlines, as if that was the main focus of an 11-year-old's life. My kids know that I loathe the popular Suite Life on Deck for Zack's offensive attempts at winning over "hot" ladies. Please.
More imagination: Phineus and Ferb is everyone's favourite show, not just in my house but in most of our friends' houses too. Why? Because it is well written, funny and shows real imagination. In some ways it is simplistic, but in others totally surprising. Kids don't have limits on their imagination and P&F prove every day of summer vacation.
More darkness, more risks, more payoffs: The most popular television show for boys aged 9-11 is Clone Wars. I like it too (though the movie was horrible). There are strong female characters that are both good and evil, the characters' back story is revealed slowly over time, there is violence but for a reason; there are mistakes made that have consequences and it is serialized. It is dark and scary but it makes viewers feel something other than pity. It is animated but it is more real than most of what we see on television. My kids want to know what is going to happen next, they talk about it with their friends, and they are eager for the new season.
Do you want to know why we watch American Idol as a family? Because despite the formula, the brutal music and the grating judges, we start to care about the outcome and the contestants. Even simplistic reality shows have more complex emotion, more stakes and more surprises than most kids' TV shows. Kids know it.
In the end what do I want in kids' programming? Better writing. The writing is the key to good characters and storylines. Good writing doesn't need to rely on stereotypical characters and situations. Most of the shows feel like the writers have dialed it in: feisty kid - check; rebel - check; bitchy blonde - check; annoying adults - double check; kid with funny accent or fat kid - check. Really good writing would provide more laughs, more emotion and less annoyingly obvious plotlines.
Will our kids remember the bulk of the shows they watch? No. But they will remember the few shows that scared them, that moved them, that showed them that the world is a complicated place that needs complicated personalities to make a difference.
As we start turning off our cable in favour of the Internet, streaming, DVDs and other forms of media delivery I challenge the writers holed up in a room somewhere to make something of quality, to break some rules and show us something worthwhile.
If your kids watch television aimed at tweens, my answers probably didn't surprise you. But for some reason television producers think all kids want simplistic, formulaic shows with very little plot. If you could tell the TV execs what you would like to see, what would you say?
What are your kids favourite shows? What would you like to see more or less of on TV?
Want more chaos? Last year, I wrote about preschoolers love of all the words beginning with "P" and ending with "oo".