A number of people asked if I would post my opening framing from the session I produced this afternoon at the Fred Forward conference at the Fred Rogers Center in Latrobe, PA. I cut out some sentences that dealt exclusively with the task at hand for the session. I hope this rundown of challenges facing children's media professionals is helpful to others!
Today, we face vexing technological, financial and societal challenges in developing children’s media. Here are some of the challenges I have in mind:
• Even by preschool, children are immersed in a multi-media world. The media industries often feel they have to be everywhere in order to capture children’s attention, but is “360 development” based on commissioners’ concerns or on children’s needs and abilities? As you generate your idea, give thought to different platforms’ or technologies’ unique capacities and advantages. There are good and bad reasons for choosing each; if you decide on a multi-platform concept, discuss how they’d work individually and together.
• Traditional financial models for children’s educational media are weak – public broadcasting is chronically under-funded, commercial telecasters pay ever-smaller license fees as channels proliferate, the advertising market is fragmented by expanding options. Producers have dwindling options to achieve their vision, and some of those raise troubling questions – content development overshadowed by merchandising concerns, advertising to audiences too young to know its meaning, shows developed for global markets by removing any trace of unique culture. How will you pay for your media concept – and make a living yourselves – without disrespecting children and families?
• We want media ideas that are truly, madly, deeply educational. We have great models of what works on television, and growing research into effective education via digital devices. But we run the risk of cheapening the term “educational” by using it to market outcomes rather than input. Every child has unique needs, interests and abilities: we need to tell parents what ingredients went into the stew, why we chose them and why we believe in them; they’ll tell us whether the stew pleases and nourishes their kids. In short – underpromise and overdeliver. Focus on ensuring a strong learning foundation beneath your idea.
The future of children’s media depends on our solving these challenges. We can only achieve the level of quality we envision, parents long for, and children deserve by untangling the Gordian Knot. Creative excellence starves without sound economics; sound economics depend on our finding media’s appropriate roles in children’s lives; those roles evolve from parents’ trust and children’s engagement; and those comes from creative excellence. Back where we started.
Fred Rogers was a master of that balancing act, in large part because he stayed simple and true to a vision, supported by knowledge of child development. He often quoted “The Little Prince”: that which is essential is invisible to the eye. Done right, our balancing acts and compromises are invisible to children and parents, but any creator of programs, websites, games, products or apps wrestles with them daily.
This session’s goals have less to do with outcomes than with the process. No one expects you to solve all our problems today. Instead, your task – developing a creative media concept around emotional literacy – is designed to encourage sharing experience and expertise across professions, and playing with the processes and language of creative development. We may disagree at times about what children want, need, deserve or delight in, but I hope we can stipulate to two ideas: 1) children’s media aren’t going away, so we need sustainable strategies for giving families our best work across the growing array of technologies; and 2) children, like adults, seek and are entitled to a variety of content that engages, enlightens, informs and entertains them.