From wildlife to game shows, there are numerous live-action factual series available for young audiences.
With reality series, game shows and documentaries aplenty, there is no shortage of options for adults wanting to tune in to live-action factual fare. But grown-ups aren’t the only television consumers looking for this type of programming; kids, too, crave unscripted series—led by real-life talent—that can both entertain and educate them. Of course, don’t tell them that they might learn something from the content in their media diets. Much like proactive parents sneaking peas into their little one’s mac-and-cheese, producers of children’s programming are given the stealth task of discreetly incorporating educational elements into their live-action factual productions.
“That’s the magic combination,” says Genevieve Dexter, the founder and CEO of Serious Lunch, which sells the live-action factual-entertainment series Operation Ouch! and Art Ninja. “Hopefully you’re entertaining them and they barely notice that you are giving them information in the process. As soon as it looks like you’re trying to tell them something [educational], they’ll be like, Well, I can read a book for that—I don’t need you doing that on TV!”
In Germany, Maus’s combination of “short documentaries and funny animated clips is the perfect means to balance out education and entertainment,” reports Stefanie Fischer, the head of content at WDR mediagroup (WDRmg). “The documentary parts address topics that are relevant to kids—for example, Why is the sky blue? or, How do the stripes get into toothpaste? If these educational components deliver answers to kids’ most urgent questions, they automatically become entertaining for them as well.”
“The goal is always to stress the entertainment aspects first, and then put in the educational components secondarily,” adds Joy Rosen, co-founder and CEO of Portfolio Entertainment, which boasts the live-action factual show Do You Know? in its slate. “Kids really get the difference between entertainment and school, so that’s why we always try to stress the entertainment—great characters, interesting hosts, a lot of humor, a little bit of irreverence; everything that separates it from what they construe as being strictly educational.”
Live-action factual series with educational elements are the ones that resonate most with young viewers, reports Munia Kanna-Konsek, the head of sales at Beyond Distribution, which represents such titles as Backyard Science, Kid Detectives, History Hunters, The Dengineers and Absolute Genius with Dick and Dom. “Backyard Science, Kid Detectives and History Hunters all have kids demonstrating easy, practical, cool, educational and scientific things to do in your home and backyard,” she says. Even the game shows in Beyond’s catalog, including Lab Rats Challenge and Steam Punks, are science-based and therefore provide an opportunity for children to expand their minds.
“There is a huge emphasis on STEM programming at the moment, so I think science subjects are really performing very well, and are probably out-performing the arts in that they seem to be something that people place a lot of value on for acquisition,” notes Serious Lunch’s Dexter.
“Science has always been interesting to kids, as long as it’s delivered in a really fun and entertaining way,” adds Portfolio’s Rosen. “There’s a lot of interest from parents in getting their kids more educated, and television is still one medium that the parents control. They can’t control YouTube as much as what their kids watch on TV.”
The wonders of the natural world are also a major draw for young viewers. Many producers are finding that kids need their own spin on wildlife content, even though they can certainly watch shows like Planet Earth II with Mom and Dad.
“I realized that there was a gap in the kids’ business when it came to wildlife,” says Marc du Pontavice, the founder and CEO of Xilam Animation. The studio has made a foray into the live-action factual space with the wildlife documentary series If I Were an Animal…, which explores how different creatures transition from the newborn phase through to adulthood. “There are plenty of wildlife [docs] for prime time, but all of them are written and produced mostly for adults. They have a serious tone [and] a lot of the imagery is not necessarily appropriate for kids, who really love animals.”
The Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF) distributes the wildlife-themed shows Bushwhacked! and WAC (World Animal Championships). “Our wildlife adventure series Bushwhacked! was very successful for SUPER RTL in Germany and was picked up by Discovery Kids Asia, as well as by National Geographic Kids in the U.S. for their VOD platform,” says Tim Hegarty, the company’s international sales manager. “Irish-language broadcaster TG4 licensed the format rights to our hosted wildlife series World Animal Championships in 2014 and created their own version, using local hosts speaking in the Irish language. And in January of this year, U.K. kids’ SVOD platform Azoomee licensed Bushwhacked! as well as Wacky World Beaters.”
While animals are adorable and appealing to watch, it’s also important for a live-action factual kids’ show to feature compelling presenters who know how to keep viewers engaged. “It’s not enough for them to just be a presenter,” says Serious Lunch’s Dexter. “They are essentially key talent, as opposed to an emcee. That lends so much to the show.” She notes as an example Operation Ouch!’s twin hosts Chris and Xand van Tulleken, who are real-life doctors and are therefore able to bring real-world expertise to the table. “They’ll say, Oh, we know we can go to this research lab where they’re doing some amazing things with what low temperature does to the body, and then you can go on a location shoot and they can contribute so much. Plus, when they’re doing the experiments in the lab, they actually know how and are qualified to perform them.”
Dexter continues: “The more daring you are in the way that you present, and the more anarchic you are about it, the better, because [kids are] so caught up in saying, Oh, this show is completely crazy. And while they’re ‘wow’-ing about, How can these guys be so crazy?, they’re not noticing that at the same time, they’re learning. Especially if they can really connect with the hosts; some hosts attract kids of certain ages and other kids think, This is lame. They turn off quite quickly unless they really think that the host is cool. They’ve got to find the host aspirational and want to follow them as people, because if not, then you’ve fallen at the first hurdle.”
Naturally, the talent pool for children’s content has opened up to include online personalities. This can lead to success for a show so long as its web-based star is truly as wonderful as he or she seems in the digital space. But not all YouTube personalities with a kids’ following have squeaky-clean histories. Recently, Disney Channel parted ways with social-media star Jake Paul, who appeared on Bizaardvark, after reports surfaced that he was a nuisance to his neighbors.
“Now that we’re getting hosts from the internet, it’s really important that we vet them very, very well to make sure that they actually are as great as they appear on YouTube,” says Portfolio’s Rosen. “They all have pasts, so we do a lot of vetting of their history to make sure that they really are as wholesome as they present. We look for big personalities, we look for a sense of humor and we look for a great way to engage people very quickly.”
Portfolio’s Do You Know? is hosted by internet influencer Maddie Moate. “Maddie Moate works so well with Do You Know? because she’s already achieved that success online, so she was pretty vetted by that point,” says Rosen. “Once Do You Know? was produced, we were able to have her promote the show on her YouTube channel and on her Twitter and Facebook and all of that, so it’s a really great cross-promotional opportunity.”
In addition to having interesting subject matter led by compelling and clean-cut hosts, another beneficial characteristic of a live-action factual kids’ show is its ability to be co-viewed by parents who can actually feel like they’re also being entertained when sitting in front of the TV set with their little ones.
“Broadcasters across the board are always on the lookout for good-quality, live-action factual content, particularly those shows that kids and adults can enjoy watching together,” says ACTF’s Hegarty.
“I don’t think [broadcasters’] main aim is promoting co-viewing, but if it happens with a program then that is great luck,” notes Beyond’s Kanna-Konsek. “Edutainment programs are generally co-viewing opportunities.”
“Co-viewing is something that can happen on weekend slots, especially in the morning or in the afternoon,” says Xilam’s du Pontavice. “That’s typically when mom, dad and kids can watch together.”
Fischer at WDRmg adds, “Even though [Maus] primarily addresses children aged 5 to 9, watching it together every Sunday morning has become a tradition for many families [in Germany since the 1970s].”
According to Fischer, kids’ factual shows are generally geared more toward an older-skewing demographic, due to their educational nature. “Factual programs may take up topics that are too complex for very young viewers to understand,” she says. “That is why most of them resonate best with slightly older children or young teenagers. However, our catalog includes a Maus spin-off called Elefantastic that is specifically designed for preschoolers. Its documentary components focus on everyday phenomena, such as watching a fly’s wing in super slow-motion or seeing ice melt in high-speed time-lapse, which is fascinating—even for a very young audience.”
Serious Lunch’s Dexter sees the bulk of live-action factual properties falling into the “bridge” category, “but I think that where kids play kind of gets less important. As thematic channels give way to [online] players and catch-up, you find that children’s viewing is really changing, in that the 5-year-olds are watching Danger Mouse—which is on CBBC—and the 14-year-olds are watching Teletubbies because they think it’s funny.”
“We produce or acquire properties for traditional age groups—preschool, 6 to 12, etc.—but there will be times when one group seeps into the other,” adds Beyond’s Kanna-Konsek. “We need to be careful not to dumb things down, as kids are always much more clever than some may think!”
While they may not be watching the evening news, kids are smart and have a sense of what is going on around them, so many distributors are looking to take on shows that tackle pressing current issues. “We look out for programs that are relevant for kids all over the world,” says WDRmg’s Fischer. “There is an increasing number of shows that aim to raise awareness about environmental issues or political situations that influence the world on a greater scale.”
The downside to such shows, however, is that they age quickly. “We tend to stick with programs that will have a long shelf life, and try not to address areas where it will date a program,” notes Beyond’s Kanna-Konsek.
As is the case with other types of children’s programming, nonlinear extensions, including interactive apps and websites, help satiate kids’ appetites for live-action factual content beyond the small screen, and can also go deeper into the educational aspect of a show.
“I think everybody expects to have them,” says Serious Lunch’s Dexter. “The mobile game Snot Apocalypse has been very successful on Operation Ouch!, and then there are also interactive episodes—one’s called ‘Poo’ and the other one ‘Wee.’ Despite having silly names, they are great and if you’re into the show, it’s another way of testing your knowledge.”
“Generally, interactivity is a great way to raise kids’ involvement and help them build an emotional connection to a program,” notes Fischer. “It may be a vital factor in a program’s success. However, not every program is designed in a way that an app or a website can contribute something valuable to it. Online extensions need to be authentic and feel natural to the concept of the show.”
“When it comes to linear television, or even video-on-demand exploitation of those programs…you can only have a very limited educational aspect,” adds Xilam’s du Pontavice. “[Nonlinear extensions] give kids who loved a certain episode the opportunity to go to the app and learn more about it. So it’s very complementary. You have the show itself, which is mostly entertaining and somewhat educational, and then with the apps, you can explore the educational parts more.”
If all goes according to plan, live-action factual fare and corresponding nonlinear extensions will continue to help parents sneak healthy “peas” of knowledge into their kids’ media diets, which will hopefully result in an even more educated generation of adults.
Pictured: Australian Children’s Television Foundation’s Wacky World Beaters.