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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.