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Monday, July 7, 2008

Successful End to a Successful Trip

It doesn't take long being around me to ascertain that I have two obsessions -- kids' media and distance running. So, I was pretty thrilled when Showcomotion organizer Greg Childs not only asked me to return and present my annual PRIX JEUNESSE "Suitcase" screening, but also if I would run the British 10k road race on Sunday, July 6, as a charity runner for his cause of choice, The Multiple Sclerosis Trust. What a challenge -- to do something I love in the heart of a city that endlessly fascinates me, for a worthy cause that is important to someone I greatly respect!

So, before returning home today, I ran yesterday. Unless you are Stefano Baldini (2004 Olympic Marathon Champion) or Lornah Kiplagat (one of the world's premier women in the marathon), this is a run not a race. With 25000 people participating (probably about 75% of them for various charities), a very narrow start line near the Wellington Arch, and no seeding by anticipated pace at the start, all but the elites spend much of the race weaving in and out of slower traffic.

Still, it was a spectacular course through Trafalgar Square, along the Embankment to the Tower of London, back to Westminster Bridge, around Parliament Square, and finishing on Whitehall.

Below are a few photos from the run. If any should inspire you to support the MS Trust, the site for giving will be open for a few more weeks here.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Online safety

In Showcomotion's closing session, the question was raised why we never seem to get to discussing the creative foundations, processes and possibilities of the digital world. Showcomotion Producer Greg Childs, principal of Childseye Consulting noted that not just at Showcomotion, but at almost every conference on digital social networks and spaces, the theme veers quickly to problems and threats.

As if to prove the point, almost simultaneously with the closing session came this article from the LA Times about online bullies, thieves and cheaters, and this Huffington Post article on media addiction.

Five guidelines for companies'/brands' best practices in social networks

Maurice Wheeler, Founder and Planning Director of Digital Outlook, laid out five key ground rules for companies or brands seeking to have presence on social networking sites.

1) Help me, don’t sell to me – don’t just put up an ad, but offer something of community value.
2) Keep it real – don't pretend to be something you're not, either by disguising your site as a fan site or by representing yourself as a happy customer. Today's youth have very quick bulls**t detectors (and some technical tricks) and will find you out and embarrass you.
3) Make it unique -- whatever you offer in your social network space should be unavailable anywhere else, even in your other marketing or promotion.
4) Be open and accepting whatever the consequences – if you are attacked or criticized, resist the urge to lash back, respond or delete the offending content. Take a deep breath, and let your community defend you.
5) For us by us. Offer opportunities for the community to contribute; sense of ownership is vital.

What will the gatekeepers keep?

In a session on the difficulty of bringing together the game industry and the TV industry, one panelist pointed out that now that many gaming consoles are Internet connected, it's not just possible, but easy for game manufacturers to continually update in-game advertising. The billboard your avatar walks past today with a McDonald's ad could well be promoting Coke tomorrow.

Suddenly, games are ad-supported, continually updating media...or what used to be called "television."

For a time, ongoing revenue stream was the major argument from TV gatekeepers why the game world needed to collaborate with them. Now...not so much.

The Eclectic Slide, Part II

Also from Seth's presentation, a mapping of the digital world and homage to the London Tube:

The Eclectic Slide, Part I

A Powerpoint slide from the presentation of Chris Seth, Managing Director of Piczo Europe, speaking during the "Social Media: Realising the Opportunity" session:

The Channel of Me – I know best how to create, assemble, organize and consume my experiences.

The Channel of Us – We are self organizing with the power, trust, scale and social currency that only we can provide for ourselves.

Salute Your Shorts

Early on in my children’s TV career, as I looked around the world, I was taken especially with the countries (most often in Europe) that used children’s blocks to escape the tyranny of 30 and 60 minute programs. Blocks could feature a five-minute documentary followed by an 11-minute animation and a two-minute video clip. Not only could content could find its appropriate length, but also while kids would know that the block was made explicitly for them, it wouldn’t be predictable enough to let them click away during something that didn’t appeal – what if their favorite segment came up next?

Now, in the manic, mobile and mash-up age, short content for television has renewed life, and this was the topic of the GET SHORTY session. Short-form has both financial and creative appeal: it enables a telecaster to test out a concept before taking it to a longer-form series, or to take content risks, at a lower level of investment. In some cases, channels are using it as an opportunity for user-generated content. Others – like Nickelodeon UK – are using shorts to drive their social awareness or public service campaigns.

Here are links to some of the programs presented:

Pedro and Frankensheep
Nick UK’s See Something Say Something
The Zimmer Twins
The McLeod Brothers (see especially The Odyssey in 15 seconds)

Whither (or is it "wither"?) Public Service Media?

A “question time” session on the state and future of public service broadcasting began by questioning the use and definition of the term itself. BBC Children’s Controller Richard Deverell noted that the regulator Ofcom’s definition from five years ago – quality, creativity, serving all and measurable outcomes – remains valid; what’s changed is the range of companies, channels, platforms and venues where public service content is being provided, that weren’t necessarily considered or included originally.

Janey Walker, Head of Education and Managing Editor of Commissioning for Channel 4, added that the audience demand must also be part of the equation in defining public service content, though, and that is is dangerous to define it solely in terms of commercial market failures (i.e., public service is to fill gaps that the market can’t or won’t); Channel 4 wants to reach as many people as possible, and it shouldn’t diminish public service value if they use a popular format and put it on at 8 in the evening.

Blogger’s Note: A few years back, especially when I was working on the “One Mission Many Screens” report for PBS and the Markle Foundation, we used the term ‘public service media’ to replace ‘broadcasting’ in recognition of the public’s migration to multiple screens. In evolving now to ‘public service content,’ defined in large part by its “purposes and characteristics” (a term used by regulator Ofcom’s Head of Market Research James Thickett), how will this affect the concept of publicly funded or at least publicly sanctioned media outlets…under that definition, do bloggers and YouTube become part of public service media?

Another major debate during the “Future of Kids’ PSB” session was whether the advocates for British-made children’s media – principally PACT (the producers’ alliance) and Save Kids’ TV – have been “too nice,” and whether it’s time to harden their campaign.

Everyone seemed to agree that the strength of the activists’ argument is that it’s a “nice” one – everyone with children wants the best for them. Janey Walker suggested using that as a starting point on the high ground, but said ultimately the battle would be won by using the hardest-headed accountants who can come up with sustainable funding plans.

Adam Minns, speaking for PACT, noted that the advocates may not have achieved all their goals, but said they’ve made undeniable progress since Showcomotion 2006, when the movement was born: there has been press coverage, Channel 4 has proposed investing 10 million UKP in teen programming, and Ofcom’s CEO was quoted that “children’s is the ‘bleeding edge’ of public service issues.”

Anne Brogan agreed, but said while the topic is on people’s lips, it’s not yet achieved action. She paraphrased MP Ed Vaizey from the night before as saying, “I’m with you but I won’t put money or time in.” This led the BBC’s Deverell to suggest that it’s time to make politicians uncomfortable if they do nothing.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

It's a Lego world...

Also from the "Welcome to my World" session, this factoid:

There are 52 Lego bricks in existence for every person on earth.

What did you build with your 52 bricks today?

Eight Personalities in Virtual Worlds

In the "Welcome to my World" session on virtual worlds for children, researcher Lizzie Jackson from the School of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster, cited eight different personality types her team had identified while studying users of the CBBC's "Adventure Rock":

Explorer-Investigators consider their time on the site to be “outdoor” play inside; they tend to be confident and curious;
Self-stampers are working at presenting themselves to the world, and rehearsing for the next stage in their lives: being teens;
Social climbers are competitive and concerned with their "ranking," in online space, especially compared to others;
Fighters are interested in death and destruction, violence and superpowers, though often beneath this surface is a study of rules and structures;
Collector-consumers seek to accumulate anything offered up that has perceived value; and
Power users share the benefit of their knowledge and experience with others, often helping newcomers or those who are struggling with pathways and strategies;
Life System Builders create new lands or elements, then populate their environment;
Nurturers love to look after avatars or pets and teach others.

Session participants were asked to rate themselves on the scale above, with regard to views about kids and virtual worlds.

Things that make you go hmmmm....

Ten -- or even two -- years ago, had you heard the following line at a children's media conference, would you have wondered what planet you had landed on:

I need to buy a disco floor for my igloo.

Whose Space is it Anyway?

Below are some key quotes from the opening Showcomotion Session, "Whose Space is it Anyway," which played out as a game show between two teams made up of kids' media experts and teens.

On the impact of the funding shortages for children's media and attention from government, referring back to Ed Vaizey's address:

Adrian Mills (Myriad Learning) -- People won’t know what happened until its too late. At the moment, there is a plethora of channels and programs, but five years down the road the reservoir will dry up. However, as a political issue, trying to fight for attention from Members of Parliament, it will never compare to knife crime, the economy or health care.

Nigel Pickard (RDF Television), also referring back to Vaizey – A tax break is too easy, it won’t solve the problems if there aren’t enough broadcast platforms, no end user. On the other hand, it’ll be fantastic for animation and should have been there 15 years ago.

On the Byron review of safety and digital media –

Pickard - It was an eminently sensible piece of work that took 250 pages to state the obvious.

Mills – Whenever the government immediately says it will implement all recommendations in a report, you know there’s nothing very challenging. What it lacked that would have been useful was a rebuttal to the extreme views of people like Aric Sigman, who believe consuming media will result in an entire generation of children who are depressed and retarded.

Tanya Byron (psychologist and author of the Byron Review) – Industries have to take responsibility, but they also have to be supported to find the way forward. What should come next is a time of collaboration among government, industry, experts, kids.

On perceptions of most media as divorced from education --

Mills – Education and media have drifted apart because the concept of schools TV was never re-invented; we need to re-engage in the idea of media’s role in children’s learning, not based on a 1950’s model, and not disregarding the ongoing important role of TV.

At the end of the session, asked what kinds of TV they liked, the two teen girls on the panel mentioned Grange Hill and Byker Grove as shows they best related to; sadly, both have been discontinued.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Vaizey: Kids' TV Caught in the "Perfect Storm"

Showcomotion Chair Anna Home (former Head of Children’s Programmes for the BBC) introduced Shadow Minister Ed Vaizey by talking about the “special and particular scrutiny” received recently on children and the media in the UK. She cited multiple governmental reports from various sectors (Vaizey estimated that number at 14!). Home said it was great that the children’s media industry and culture are being taken so seriously, but wondered if it all was happening too late to take the values of PSB forward into the future.

Vaizey spotlighted the conundrum of children’s media policy today. In the UK government’s broad “Children’s Plan” on the difficulties in bringing up youth today, the second point of the executive summary referred to the “danger of television,” whereas it wasn’t until page 45 that the report mentioned the medium’s positive potential. The environment is “somewhat hostile and somewhat suspicious and I don’t think it should be that way,” Vaizey (father of a two year old) said.

He also noted that children’s TV is caught in “the perfect storm” – more regulation makes it less advantageous for broadcasters to produce new content, while the fast-changing technology environment is making innovation ever more necessary.

Vaizey demurred from taking a stand on any of Ofcom’s four proposals for ways forward, or from a fifth proposal to create a central commissioner of domestic children’s PSB content for use across channels. He did say, however, that the industry’s lobbying efforts for tax incentives (particularly by the producers’ lobby PACT) has been very effective – they haven’t asked for the world and they have been clear and responsive to issues raised, he noted, citing in particular PACT’s argument that if tax incentives prove useless, no one will use them, but they represent a small investment with big benefits if they are effective.

Tax incentives, Vaizey proposed, make sense for industries that are in the business of risk, because they give companies incentive to keep money at home, keep regulation to a minimum and act in a very targeted way.

When it came time for questions, the largest concern from the audience was whether government concern can be turned to action in time to save the industry. Vaizey admitted that it’s unlikely anything would happen before 2010, when the next election is likely to take place, and that he’s not convinced the case for more urgent intervention has yet been made.

Disclaimer: As an American visitor, this report is filtered through my own understanding both of the British political system and of what Mr. Vaizey said; others at Showcomotion or simply those who know the environment are very much invited to clarify or comment!

Showcomotion 2008: Theirspace

Greetings from Sheffield, England, and the Showcomotion conference. This is the fifth gathering, and it’s become one of my – and the British children’s media industry’s – favorite meetings. For me, at least, this is because it’s perpetually forward looking. Even last year, when UK children’s TV seemed to be at a nadir in finances and morale, there was no hand-wringing or “woe are we” attitude, but instead a figurative rolling up of sleeves and commitment to getting closer to the audience to do more with less.

One sign of the value UK professionals assign to Showcomotion: there are 119 contributors (speakers, moderators, producers) this year, and virtually all are volunteers. They’ll be speaking to roughly 400 people in the audience.

The 2008 Showcomotion theme is “Theirspace,” an assessment of new ideas, best practices and how well we as adults are providing content for all the old and new places young people access media. (I am here, as always, to present screenings and discussion of children’s TV from around the world, drawn from the recent PRIX JEUNESSE, perhaps, the most “traditional media” session of the conference.)

More than any year before, the speakers come from gaming, social networks and other digital development, though of course there’s still strong representation from the TV channels and independent producers. Among the most interesting sessions, as well, should be those dealing with policy – tonight the shadow (opposition) minister for culture and broadcasting will open the conference, and tomorrow there will be opportunities to question regulators and activists, plus a chance to feed into the BBC Trust’s review of service to children.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

And the winners are!

Up to 6 Fiction: A Sunny Day - ARD/SWR-Germany

Up to 6 Non-Fiction: Numbers and Beards - SVT-Sweden

7-11 Fiction: The Magic Tree: Devourer of Books - TVP-Poland

7-11 Non-Fiction: The Wrong Trainers - CBBC-UK

12-15 Fiction and Non-Fiction: Sexteens - Artear-Argentina

Theme Prize (Gender): Mortified - Nine Network-Australia

UNESCO Prize: Genji - KRO Youth-Netherlands

UNICEF Prize: Buddyz on the Move - SABC-South Africa

Next Generation: Tsehai Loves Learning - Ethiopian Television-Ethiopia

Interactivity Prize, Pre-School: Oline - Danmarks Radio-Denmark

Interactivity Prize, School Age: CBBC Me and My Movie - CBBC-UK

Children's Jury, Fiction: Desperados - CBBC-UK

Children's Jury, NonFiction: Mathematica - NHK-Japan

International Youth Jury: Under Pressure - ARD/NDR-Germany

Heart Prize: On the Block - RTE-Ireland

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Sheep Thrills

Sheep = Funny

Not just my opinion, but the learned conclusion of the PRIX JEUNESSE moderators, after their deconstruction of the discussions over the past week. Their finding is based on Shaun the Sheep, Jakers and The Wonder Pets.

Baby TV

The very first TV show for babies (up to 18 months) I ever saw was here at PRIX JEUNESSE, as far back as 1988. "Tik Tak," from Belgium, was five minutes, daily at 5:55 pm, meant to give parents five minutes to prepare dinner (does that sound familiar to today's debates?). It consisted of colorful images and black and white geometrics, spinning and bouncing and moving. It was simple, with no vast claims of educational value, just a daily engaging TV break.

As we look for information on the efficacy (or lack thereof) of baby TV, perhaps we need to look farther afield. Japan's public broadcaster, NHK, has been doing baby programming for 20 years, and its representatives say they have an extensive research library. Their lead researcher will be in the UK for the July Showcomotion conference, and coming to the US after that; I'll be in Japan for the long-running Japan Prize, so I hope to have a chance to examine their findings on baby TV.

The PRIX JEUNESSE "Finalists"

The finalists for tonight’s PRIX JEUNESSE Award Ceremony were just announced. In this case, “finalist” includes the top three rated programs in each major category (12-15, 7-11 Fiction, 7-11 Non-Fiction, Up to 6 Fiction, Up to 6 Non-Fiction), plus contenders for the special prizes: UNICEF, UNESCO, Next Generation, Gender, Youth and Children’s Juries. So, not every program in the list below will take home an honor, and some may win more than one.

In any case, the geographic, genre, content and other diversity of the list below is impressive! I’ll be reporting the winner as soon as possible after the ceremony.

Nominees – top three in each category, plus the special prizes (UNICEF, UNESCO, etc.)

Sexteens, Argentina – A short clay animation encouraging safe sex

The Daltons, Netherlands - The full cast returns to a drama series that was a hit ten years ago; now, the young children are teens and this episode deals with first loves forming and breaking

Love Agents, Sweden – Tweens give relationship advice and help a peer make a date

Under Pressure, Germany – A crime drama with teen protagonists

Buddyz on the Move, South Africa – A non-fiction offshoot of the legendary South African drama series “Soul Buddyz,” here a village of children helps a classmate afflicted with HIV get a cell phone so she can keep up with her classmates, and helps her grandmother keep her house.

Mathematica, Japan – Clear and innovative graphic demonstrations of math concepts.

The Gift, Norway – Children submit a request to give a friend a special gift; here, two girls arrange a day as a fashion model for a friend who is recovering from cancer.

On the Block, Ireland – Youth made documentary about the dismantling of their neighborhood housing estate, and their impending move to new homes.

The Wrong Trainers, UK – Animated stories of children living in poverty in the UK.

Desperados, UK – Comedic drama around the formation of a wheelchair basketball team.

Genji, Netherlands – A little girl learns martial arts to ward off a bully who terrorizes her and a blind friend.

The Magic Tree: Devourer of Books, Poland – Multi-PRIX JEUNESSE winner Andrzej Maleszka’s newest episode of his anthology series, this one about a cupboard that turns books into cakes that give the consumer all the book’s knowledge.

Shaun the Sheep, UK – Aardman Animation series built around a sheepdog and his flock.

Mortified, Australia – An early teen-angst sitcom covers crushes on older boys and fear of having “the talk.”

Peek a Boo – Happy Hands, Japan – Baby TV that has been on air for 20 years in Japan.

Numbers and Beards, Sweden – Not a math series, just an innovative, if not unusual, way of sharing a love of numbers with pre-schoolers.

Outside, Netherlands – Documentary footage of children at play, animated to reveal their fantasies

A Sunny Day, Germany – A one-off animation in which a very proud sun rises, spends the day, and sets, showing all the people and animals who are influenced by its rays and heat.

Adriaan, Netherlands – Adriaan’s dog, Spottie, has died; he and his father make plans for the burial.

Christmas with Linus and His Friends, Norway – Part of a 24-episode Christmas mini-series, Linus’ little sister, given to lying about everything, runs away to “Japan.” We see the adventures she has, but only at the end of the day do her parents realize there’s more to her tall tales then they think!

Tsehai Loves Learning, Ethiopia – Puppet series targeting Ethiopian children’s physical and emotional health.

Ending on a High Note

I have no say in, or knowledge of, the nominees for the Next Generation Prize, but I have a personal favorite. The contest’s final program to be screened ought to be a competitor for this prize.

“Tsehai Loves Learning” is a puppet program dealing with social and emotional issues, done on a shoestring by a husband, wife and small team in Ethiopia (Shane Etzenhouser and Radiet Alemu are here; Bruktawit Tigabu is at home, about to deliver Shane’s and her first child!). The writing is direct and clear, using simple interactivity in the style of “Blue’s Clues” to invite children at home to participate. The characters aren’t fancy, but they are well conceived and colorful, culturally familiar and empathetic.

In the competition episode, Tsehai the giraffe is trying to figure out why his friend Tsinat is sad. The storytelling is supplemented by games to identify emotions by facial expression, and by Tsehai interviewing children about their experiences with emotions. When Tsehai finds out Tsinat is sad because his mother died of AIDS, he tells a story that reassures Tsinat that his mother loved him very much and is watching from above.

The producers have such a strong sense of their culture and audience that mentoring from a developed-world producer or writer or director wouldn’t rob Tsehai or their next project of essential cultural roots or loving nature.

One in eight children in Ethiopia is an AIDS orphan.

Building the Next Generation

New to PRIX JEUNESSE 2008 is the “Next Generation Prize” for promising talent shown by the person or team behind a competing program. The award is meant in particular for “a program produced under difficult circumstances, with scarce finances, or in a developing or emerging production environment.”

The award includes cash, but also a year of mentoring toward a new project, by experts from one of the broadcaster sponsors behind the prize – Nickelodeon UK, Disney Germany, BBC, the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, KRO Youth and ZDF/Germany.

I asked Bernadette O’Mahony, representing the ACTF, what they were looking for in the Next Generation Prize-winning entry. “We were looking for somebody who, with resources – financial, plus support and advice – has the ability to grow and create something that is worthwhile for their audience. We wanted to help as developed world companies, without taking away the essential cultural nature.

“We looked at the experience of the overall team, but mostly the role of the young professional (“young” being defined more as early in a career than chronological youth) at the core, since the prize goes to an individual. We looked at what kind of support they had around them, and then at the creativity and quality of what they were doing now.
It’s always around this point of PRIX JEUNESSE that I realized about 80% of the people around me have been operating for almost a week in a language that isn’t their first. For many years, the festival was run simultaneously in English, French and German, later adding Spanish. Every program and plenary session was translated live, and there were parallel discussion groups in each of the languages. Once that became financially impractical, PRIX JEUNESSE decided to run in English, with all programs either translated or subtitled, and discussion groups run primarily in English, but with bilingual moderators where possible.

Still, the English spoken by so many of the participants from all over the world is so proficient and fluent that it’s easy to forget the intellectual strain it must be to translate everything – six hours per day of TV, formal discussion sessions, lunchtime conversations, information sessions – from English as you take it in, and then back into English as you contribute.

A few years back, I attended a PRIX JEUNESSE offshoot in Chile, run entirely in Spanish. I spent the first day being resentful that no accommodation was made for me…and then realized that this is what it must be like for most people at PRIX JEUNESSE.

This morning’s five minute lecture – an innovation for 2008’s theme of gender and children’s TV – was on why boys always win in the end. For the 2006 PRIX JEUNESSE, all but two programs featured boys in the lead role. In many cases, the characters weren’t stereotypical – an Israeli documentary about a boy pursuing a peace club wth Palestinian children, a sympathetic and emotional profile of a stuttering German boy, a female Swedish pre-school science show presenter – but these are the basic numbers. It would be interesting to project them back over past festivals and see if this was an anomaly.

This much I can say, based on the most recent two programs to screen – little sisters are nothing but trouble…from Mongolia to Norway.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Death for an Early Age

Since few pre-schoolers worry about taxes, perhaps the toughest topic to take on in children’s TV is death.

We’ve just seen a movingly simple drama from KRO in the Netherlands, in which Adriaan (roughly six years old) and his father go to get a coffin for Spottie the dog, and then bury him in the neighbor’s woods. The program takes its time in telling the story; it’s not afraid to rest its gaze on Adriaan’s face and register his very real emotions, not does it rush through a burial in which Adriaan is too angry to say his goodbyes. Adriaan quarrels with the carpenter’s son when he asks too intrusive questions, but when the son accompanies the family to bury Spottie, the two reach a friendship.

On the other hand, in conversations since I wrote the above paragraphs, I’ve heard from others that the family in the film was cold and unfeeling in how it dealt with Adriaan, and that the program never allowed the boy to truly show sadness.

But – as Reading Rainbow used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it. The program is on KRO Youth’s wonderful YouTube channel. Here’s the link – watch and let me know what you think.

Adriaan and Spottie

Pardon the especially poor photo quality.

Every year, someone asks why there are no children at PRIX JEUNESSE. There are two simple answers – the first is that this is a professional gathering, designed for expert analysis of program structure, development, content and age appropriateness. The second, and more compelling, reason is that children don’t naturally sit for 8 hours at a time watching television, not even with the aid of coffee and the promise of good German beer.

The festival has developed means of getting young people’s reactions to the finalists. A group of Munich schoolchildren judges the 7-11 category shows, and for the first time in 2008, seven international youth juries of teens year olds (including one organized by the ACCM, WTTW and the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival) screened, discussed and voted on the 12-15 category.

Still, every once in a while, children appear at the festival. One participant brought her 10-month-old baby (who was closely studied during the one “baby TV” entry, from NHK/Japan), and Meenakshi and Vinay Rai – filmmakers from India brought their two children, who often serve as their films’ presenters. Their youngest, Raghu, is the focus of one of the festival’s more controversial films, a dispassionate documenting of Raghu playing rather roughly with a kitten.

Team Arbeit!

We’re currently watching the Nick Jr./Little Airplane series “Wonder Pets,” but since it was submitted for 2008 by Nick Germany, the episode is screening in German. As much as I’m used to seeing voiced over animation when I travel, there’s something marvelous but a bit disorienting to a series you know well, especially with such distinctive voices, rhythms and repeating features, entirely familiar except for the soundtrack -- the eyes take it in but the ears aren't quite certain. Still, the Germans have done a remarkable job of finding perfect voices for the Linny, Tuck and Ming-Ming.

Was funktioniert?
Team arbeit!

Communicating Without Language

What will a five-year-old do when sent into a room to get a piece of basic information from someone who doesn’t speak his language? “Wow How” from Korea tests this question, first with two girls tasked with getting a German visitor’s name and country, and then with two boys who have to find out her age.

The boys, in particular, react with shock at finding someone so different from them (“she looks like a mannequin”), but are also most innovative in devising a means of communicating, using blocks to show their own ages, which the visitor gladly shows in return.

Maleszka Magic

Polish director Andrzej Maleszka has been a stand-out at PRIX JEUNESSE as long as I’ve been attending. In either 1998 or 1990, he brought a brilliant game show, set in a wooded park, in which mixed teams of Polish children who spoke no German and German children who spoke no Polish had to find ways to communicate to complete tasks.

Only a few years later, his genius as a drama director began to emerge. “Jakub” was the story of a boy sent out for milk who returns with a cow. “Kitten” featured a little girl who, disappointed that she got a cat instead of a dog for her birthday, wakes the next morning to find she can only speak ‘cat.’ “Tele-Julia” continued Maleszka’s love of magic, as an enchanted hat turned into a mega-TV antenna, and compelled the girl wearing it to act out whatever was currently on TV.

Maleszka has a winning streak at PRIX JEUNESSE dating to 2004 with his “Magic Tree” anthology series. The link among the films for TV Poland is that each traces the ultimate fate of some piece of a magic tree, that itself carries a bit of the magic. So, in “The Sceptre” (2006), two boys fight, with predictable results, over a baton that allows whoever holds it to compel others to do as they say. In “The Wooden Dog,” a boy’s sled runs by itself, since he’s allergic to dogs.

In 2008, Maleszka may be up for a “three-peat.” In a highly competitive category, people in the discussion groups loved “Devourer of Books,” where books put into a magic cupboard are magically turned into luscious cakes that imbue those who eat them with all the book’s contents. The class’ non-reader suddenly becomes the academic quiz champion, but was it magic…or just newfound confidence?

Much of Maleszka’s directing magic comes from his longstanding technique of spending a long time in workshops with his child actors, giving them time to become comfortable together.

Interactivity Prize - Play Along at Home

Tonight, the finalists for the PRIX JEUNESSE Interactivity Prize present their sites to the audience; anyone who attends the session can vote to choose the winners in Pre-School and School Age categories.

The Interactivity Prize was created as the Web Prize about 10 years ago, in order to reflect the growing presence of web sites linked to kids' TV shows. Now, as the environment has shifted, the sites have morphed from reminiscent of the associated TV show to full-fledged partners in extending kids' participation and enjoyment of what they've seen on television.

If you want to "play along" with the PJ Interactivity Prize, here are the URLs for the nominated sites:



Word Girl Website

Are We There Yet? World Adventure

School age/Youth:

The Apple Core Game Studio

CBBC Me and My Movie


Monday, June 2, 2008

Cowboys, Indians and Palestinians

Would Palestinian children understand an essentially American allegory as told by a Syrian-American filmmaker? In the Fiction 6-11 category, we just screened “Kemo Sabe,” a short independent film made in California under American Film Institute grants in the US, and aired on Al Quds TV in Ramallah.

Little Yussef (about 9 years old) is desperate to join the cowboy team in his neighborhood Cowboys and Indians games. The “captain” of the cowboys has said he needs jeans and a belt to be a cowboy, so he borrows his big brother’s jeans and acquires a belt with a big state of Texas buckle. Now, he’s got the goods, but finds the team reluctant to take him on. They finally do, but we notice as the two teams huddle up that Yussef is now the only non-white face on a wary-looking cowboy team, and all the disdainful-expressioned Indians are children of color. The captain of the cowboys says, “it’s going to be hard to know who’s who if you start mixing things up.”

The film closes with a quote from James Baldwin, “It comes as a great shock around the age of 5,6 or 7…to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians and, although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.”

A colleague from Syria says he is working to acquire the film for his channel, but doubts children there will understand the American cultural essence of the parable. In any case, it seems like a strange and defeatist message to deliver to young children – you can’t escape your pre-determined lot. There’s also a not-very-hidden message about collaboration.

In the formal discussion groups (the one I attended, at least), the broad feeling was that this was made for adults, not children. Many thought any audience would understand the “cowboys and Indians” metaphor, given the global distribution of western films, but that children in particular would never make the association to the Middle East conflict (perhaps fortunately, per some?).

Others noted that the story was missing an essential conflict of a children’s story, because Yussef acquires the trappings of the cowboys, since he takes his brother’s jeans and his father buys him a belt (when his mother has said “no”). Would his transition (and subsequent disappointment) have been more meaningful had he had to work harder to make the transition?

How do you know you're at a kids' TV festival?

Poverty Through a Child's Eyes

The British government has vowed to end child poverty by 2020, and the animated short documentary stories of the BBC’s “The Wrong Trainers” show just how far there is to go. Each of the stories, in the words and voices of children living in poverty, visualizes government statistics about the root causes of poverty, such as drug use, low income or disability. By using different styles of animation, the stories protect children’s anonymity but also lend an appropriate and engaging style to the details of each child’s story.

“The Wrong Trainers” aired as part of CBBC’s “Newsround.”

In the type of whiplash change that is common due to PRIX JEUNESSE’s lottery-determined screening order, “TWT” was immediately followed by the US’ WGBH/PBS hysterical game show, “Fetch With Ruff Ruffman.”

Both shows got audience applause afterward.

Now, where was I?

Sorry for the long dry spell and "blocked" messages you may have received – Blogspot’s bots apparently decided this blog might be spam, and denied access temporarily. In any case, back to our previously scheduled festival! I've been saving up posts and will try to finish updating during the day today.

In any case, the football game ended as all good international “friendlies” ought to – in a 6-6 tie.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Bend it Like Barney?

Wish me luck. Tonight is the biannual PRIX JEUNESSE soccer match. Most of those on the field will have started playing at age 3; I will have started playing at 7...o'clock.


We’ve moved on to the “7-11 Non-Fiction” category, and NHK/Japan served up a tasty post-lunch treat in “Mathematica II,” which finds engaging graphic ways to explain math problems. The show appears to be from the same team that created “Pythagora Switch” a few years ago, a pre-school pre-math series that used visuals like a man standing first next to children and then next to a volleyball team to show how someone can be (relatively) big and small at the same time.

None of the elements of “Mathematica” is particularly expensive; its charm lies in simplicity, humor and clarity. In the submitted episode, student chefs were given the task of figuring out which was bigger, a round cake or a square one of identical circumference. After various guesses, the chefs learned to “square the circle,” first measuring with finer and finer units (aided by clay animated cubic “Rockafellas,” each of which can break into eight “Rockakiddies”), then arranging fine slices from the round cake to approximate a square.

Formal Discussion: 12-15 Fiction and Non-Fiction

Discussion groups are the heart of PRIX JEUNESSE. After watching hours of programs, the five moderators’ job is to try to manage the fire hose of stored up opinions and reactions, so that it’s released in a controlled and directed flow. The moderators try to find common themes for grouping the programs, rather than attempting to debrief each one separately.

For the first discussion, covering the 12-15 age group, I chose the bilingual Spanish-English group moderated by Adelaida Trujillo from Colombia. It was a tough discussion, dominated by the idea that young teens are an almost impossible group to reach, drifting away from the home and TV set to friends and portable, digital media (your mileage may vary based on cultural norms and technology base). An increasing number of broadcasters simply don’t create or distribute programs for kids older than 12.

In the past, the teen category has been dominated by “worthy” and serious issue-based programs. Interestingly, in 2008, several people noted that the stories were much more about emerging self-identity – “finding me” – than about engaging young people as involved citizens.

Others noticed that the teens in many entries were divided between the strong (taking control of their lives) and the fragile (buffeted by situations and events around them). Documentaries more often focused on the strong (perhaps, one person proposed, because the fragile are too tightly wound to be the protagonists of their own stories), while the scripted stories explored lives in flux, whether in drama or with a bit of humor as leavening.

The Media Litcom

Currently screening is “Meanwhile, in Front of the Boob Tube” from Quebec, a broad sitcom with a critical viewing curriculum baked in.

The series is built around a household of young men and women whose lives play out as they sit in front of the TV and computer. The episode – in this case, the “A” story is about using a found credit card and the “B” stories are about one of the women’s use of “Butox” and the men’s obsession with lifelike “fake boobs” – is interspersed with clips of what they’re watching: overblown infomercials for everyday products (a Rube Goldberg device to reduce water pressure to a trickle), DIY shows (about making more attractive ransom notes from household items), and web ads for lifelike fake body parts.

Friday, May 30, 2008

A Market of Good Ideas

PRIX JEUNESSE is not a market, but many refer to it as a "market of good ideas." Is the festival relevant for those whose travel is most often to MIPCOM Junior, or other events where buying and selling is the primary agenda?

Jan Willem Bult, Head of the Youth Department at KRO Youth Digital in the Netherlands, says "absolutely." Bult is on the road constantly, not only to markets and festivals, but also conducting production workshops and advising on programs and channels, especially in Latin America.

The biggest benefit of traveling so much, and going to both markets and festivals, is that they are so diverse you can find everything you need across your channel.

I don’t go to markets to be inspired, but for business, to get the programs I need for KRO Digital. PRIX JEUNESSE, on the other hand, is to broaden your horizons, to be inspired, to meet all the world cultures and explore questions like diversity and equality. These are things that many of us don’t even think about anymore because they’re so much a part of what we do, but it’s important to see how they play out in other regions and countries. PRIX JEUNESSE is vital – you become aware of your responsibility as a producer and broadcaster.

Of course, for Bult, that doesn’t mean the festival doesn’t offer up program leads.

Some of the programs here have an international market – it may be small, 20-30 broadcasters, but it is an important element in a schedule. Last festival, I found here 24 half-hours of drama from Norway – now gets the highest rating on my channel against any competition.

As a producer, if you put effort in finding good stories, you’ll get things beyond the ordinary, and you find out you’re making something fresh and new. It’s not a 52-part series so it won’t go to market, but it’s the kind of story people talk about.

Best line of the day

In a program about football (soccer, for you Americans) playing twin girls, the inteviewer asks if they have boyfriends. One replies:

What kind of question is that; I thought we were going to talk about football.

Dart guns to date rape: the 12-15 paradox

PRIX JEUNESSE, and the 12-15 age category in particular, slams home the duality of tween/teen life between maturity and innocence. Because target audiences for PRIX JEUNESSE entries can straddle the category, this one includes shows aimed at as young as 9 and as old as 18, but with those slender and confusing three years as the “sweet spot.”

In the course of the first morning’s screenings, we’ve seen the previously-referenced Argentine explicitly animated cautionary tale on safe sex complete with creaking bed and moaning sounds, immediately followed by a Dutch family dramedy in which one son plots his first kiss in one scene and makes a dart gun from drinking straws in another. We’ve seen tween-age Swedish “loveagents” help a peer ask his secret crush nervously for a first date, canoeing and sharing a chocolate fondue picnic, just before a Dutch boy makes the national news for organizing a teenagers’ boat in Amsterdam’s gay pride parade. Now on-screen is a Canadian high school soap episode featuring both date rape and pass-out drinking.
As the animation industry presses west from Korea and Japan, to India and beyond, perhaps the next territory to develop will be Iran. The country sent a number of programs to the festival, and while most ended up in the video bar as not well suited to children, the overall quality of the animation itself was exceptional.

One that did make the finals was “The Red Fort,” in which a huge and fearsome army is taken down by tiny, biting ants. The colorful and innovative animation was rich, especially in showing massive crowd scenes in motion.

Pardon the quality of the "live" screen shots.

PRIX JEUNESSE 2008 is officially open

The Director General of Bayerischer Rundfunk has declared PRIX JEUNESSE 2008 officially open, and the first program – a BBC drama – is spooling as I type. The international children’s TV festival is my favorite gathering because it’s built around the creative “state of the art” and health of our industry, rather than the business or issues.

This year, a record 400 producers, writers, executives and researchers from over 50 countries have come to Munich. There are 87 shows in the finals, and in a new twist, clips from all of them played in the opening session, perfectly synced to a violin/cello duet.

In the opening 12-15 age group, it’s clear that identity will be a strong theme – personal identity, cultural identity, sexual identity. Of course, this is an eternal issue for adolescents, but the opportunity to see if from a variety of cultural perspectives – a British boy discovering he was donor-conceived, a Dutch teen joining his first gay pride parade, animated Argen-teens learning about safe sex, a Colombian photographer shares his neighborhood, Canadian young activists – is eye-opening. The first discussion session comes tomorrow morning, and it’s easy to anticipate conflict over some of the more open and explicit stories.