Dec 1 2010

Product-Themed Programs Are New Low for Kids TV

Shows aimed at selling, not storytelling

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The Hub, a new cable TV channel co-owned by a toy company whose toys star in its shows, and Zevo-3, a new TV show with characters based on a shoe company’s ad campaign, are signs of the cost of leaving the creation of cultural and educational content mainly to profiteers.

The makers of this programming are unapologetic about marketing to children, while the journalists reporting the developments offer little beyond rote expressions of concern. It’s as if it’s been decided that there is no public interest value broadcasters need honor if there is money to be made.

The Hub is co-owned by Discovery Communications and Hasbro. Shows include G.I. Joe Renegades, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Pound Puppies and Transformers Prime. Producers insist it’s all about the kids: “There are…60-odd networks for grown-ups,” says chief executive Margaret Loesch (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 10/10/10). “Why can’t kids have that?” To put a finer point on it, “Yes, some of our programs are based on beloved brands, some of which are toys.” But “our job is not to sell toys.”

Someone should tell Hasbro chief exec Brian Goldner, who “believes part ownership of a media outlet gives the company more control in how it gets its properties out to the public” (Boston Globe, 10/7/10), and “investors,” who the New York Times reports (10/11/10) “will be keeping an eye on the joint venture, to see if Hasbro’s toy sales are sufficiently bolstered by the new programming.”

Set to air on kids network Nicktoons, Zevo-3 is “a fun, action-packed and beautifully animated series” of which its makers are “tremendously proud” (AP, 9/14/10). And that would be all we knew about it, if not for the complaint filed by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which noted that the show’s “characters”—Kewl Breeze, Elastika and Z-Strap, if you must know—are commercial logos for Skechers shoes, previously appearing in ads and in comic books the company stuffed in kids shoe boxes. Nicktoons rep David Bittler’s stirring defense: “This show does not violate the Children’s Television Act’’ (AP, 9/14/10).

But if society’s needs have parted from those of profit-seeking merchandisers, you won’t hear that case made in the corporate press, which only echoes producers’ presumption that the best test of acceptability is the “market.” “Kids are not going to want to see 30-minute infomercials,” explains Discovery COO Peter Liguori (L.A. Times, 10/5/10). Loesch confirms the Hub “won’t be just an infomercial for toys,” because “that wouldn’t work at all” (Salt Lake Tribune, 10/7/10). “The audience will vote with their clickers and their eyeballs,” says Hasbro’s Goldner (L.A. Times, 10/5/10).

The Boston Globe (10/12/10) looks askance at Zevo-3, but pointedly endorses the market priorities that gave rise to it: “Ideally, commercialism in children’s TV would be a self-correcting problem; a cartoon that amounts to a long footwear advertisement could prove excruciating to viewers of all ages.”

But the problem is the essential nature of these shows—not that they won’t pass the “not excruciating” test, or that children and parents with limited choices won’t watch. The problem is the acceptance of constant corporate promotion as the necessary price of producing media for kids (or for anyone).

Instead of asking when that bargain was struck, reporters allow execs to depict a media market in which they’re just responding to public desires, as when Loesch (Hollywood Reporter, 9/8/10) contends: “Parents [told us] how much they would love co-viewing opportunities with their kids. And, surprisingly, kids wanted that too.” Readers, if not reporters, might wonder whether we’re to believe parents chose the Hub over an alternative that featured compelling characters and storylines without tie-ins to major product lines.

Coverage that doesn’t address these core issues amounts to a half-raised eyebrow, in which the “rules” being broached appear as virtual laugh lines: “The network will not air Hasbro commercials during or around Hasbro-related programming” (New York Daily News, 10/7/10); “There are no overt pitches for Skechers’ products in the cartoons” (AP, 9/14/10); “During shows based on a toy or game, the FCC bars advertisements for that toy or game” (L.A. Times, 10/5/10).

Only the Denver Post’s Joanne Ostrow (10/8/10) saw the genuinely lamentable end of an “era of concern for the powerless,” when “the special sensitivities of impressionable young viewers were taken into account, and lawmakers agreed they had a legitimate role in protecting kids.”

She suggests kids be encouraged to question: “Who created this show, why, and what are they selling me?” Now if only we could get the answer to that last question to be “nothing.”