Full STEAM Ahead

Broadcasters and platforms are eager for shows that successfully incorporate science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

STEM/STEAM has become such a hot topic for parents and educators in the U.S., it has its own “holiday.” On National STEM/STEAM Day (November 8), teachers are encouraged to put a particular emphasis on the subjects of science, technology, engineering and math, as well as the arts. Not surprisingly, several TV series have emerged that are built around making STEAM curriculum fun for young viewers. These shows are popular with kids, parents, producers, distributors and broadcasters alike. Kids like viewing them, their parents are happy to let them watch the shows because they are educational, and the industry likes them because they rate well and have a long shelf life.

The fact that parents of preschoolers like shows with STEM or STEAM themes is particularly critical, says Joy Rosen, CEO and co-founder of Portfolio Entertainment. That’s because preschool is the only age group in which the parents are in complete control of what their kids watch.

Rosen, whose company makes the science edutainment series The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!, adds, “It’s all about the global zeitgeist of a new generation of millennial parents who are trying to give their kids a leg up in the world.”

Rosen says that it’s not just parents who have warmed to the potential of STEM and STEAM-themed kids’ TV. New commissioners in the shape of OTT networks have emerged, she observes. “OTT networks have demonstrated a growing interest in more responsible, more considered kids’ content, rather than the kind of thing you might see on YouTube. They are trying to become more network-like, more sophisticated if you will. In short, they are trying to show parents that they are a viable alternative to the traditional networks, typically the state-controlled broadcasters such as CBC, the BBC and PBS.”

These shows are also gaining in popularity because of their ability to counter gender imbalances in STEAM subjects. “Within society as a whole, there is a need to get girls and women involved more in science and engineering—only 10 percent of the engineers in the world are women,” observes Bob Higgins, the executive VP of kids and family at Boat Rocker Media.

That’s why Bitz & Bob—part of the portfolio of shows now in the Boat Rocker slate following its acquisition of the FremantleMedia Kids & Family business—features engineering adventurer Bitz, an 8-year-old girl who devises engineering solutions to problems and explores the scientific principles of engineering along the way.

“With the Bitz character, we are attempting to make engineering fun and relatable to girls through imaginative play,” Higgins says of the CBeebies commission. “In each episode, something happens that requires Bitz to engineer a solution. Each show has a moment where Bitz pulls down her goggles and we see what her solution is.”

Higgins adds that great care was taken to ensure that Bitz & Bob is as entertaining as it is educational.

“In making Bitz & Bob, we have learned to avoid stopping the story too much by getting into the scientific principles of engineering. We found that over-explaining didn’t work from an entertainment point of view. We figured out ways to tick the main points so a child could walk away understanding what had happened without losing interest. We have complemented the show with a full web experience, where kids who want to learn more can go online and find out more about the principles in greater depth. The show is aspirational, funny and entertaining—at the end of the day, we are making a kids’ comedy and the educational stuff is the cherry on the cake.”

It’s a point echoed by Genevieve Dexter, founder and CEO of Serious Lunch, which distributes three STEAM shows—Operation Ouch!, Horrible Science and Art Ninja—aimed at older kids.

The most important thing is “invisible learning”—the idea that educational content should be masked and interwoven with lots of entertainment. Kids are so busy being amused that they don’t realize they are also learning something. The secret of Horrible Science, Dexter says, is that there’s a little bit of everything in there. “Shocking science, special effects, comedy, music. It’s a varied, entertaining format with quite a high budget for a kids’ factual show.”

Beyond Productions’ new magic science show Wow! That’s Amazing, co-produced with Super RTL in Germany, also relies on the invisible learning principle.

Munia Kanna-Konsek, the head of sales at Beyond Distribution, explains that Wow! That’s Amazing demonstrates tricks that kids can try at home or that will make them feel cool at school. “But the illusions and magic tricks rely on principles of physics, chemistry and math, so it’s also teaching them stuff, although they don’t realize that they are being taught.”

Portfolio’s Rosen notes that “there’s a whole generation of writers and specialist consultants now—certainly in North America—adept at marrying great STEM content with entertainment. We use science specialists to inform us of the facts and educational consultants to make that information age-appropriate. You have to distill it down to very simple terms for the very young. What we have learned is that if it’s not told in a way that a 4-year-old gets—if it’s over their heads—they will turn off.” Ultimately, she says, kids shouldn’t “feel like they are at a science lecture.”

One surefire way of attracting older kids to educational content is to make it “as revolting as possible!” jokes Dexter. “Horrible Science focuses on gory and unpleasant aspects of science; it can be pretty ghoulish, so much so that many adults find it difficult to watch.”

But Dexter adds a cautionary note: “The cultural tolerance of revolting content varies quite a lot, even in Europe. If I were to make a huge generalization, I would say that Southern Europe and France seem to have a lower tolerance for general vileness, but there’s no doubt that the British, Scandinavians and Germans like nothing more than a good fart joke!”

When making STEAM television shows, some topics are easier to sell than others, says Kanna-Konsek of Beyond, which represents such shows as Numberjacks, Get Squiggling! and The Dengineers.

“Science and technology are the big ones because they lend themselves to teachers showing how to do them in the classroom or kids trying them at home. Subjects such as history or art can be a little more difficult in the international marketplace because the focus of history or art varies from country to country.”

Boat Rocker’s Higgins agrees, noting, “Whereas history, literature or art change from culture to culture, math, science and engineering principles don’t. Wherever you are, the facts are the facts.”

Portfolio’s Rosen says it’s no accident that STEAM shows focusing on science and nature are the most numerous. “Science is a much easier, much broader field to create content around.”

The production format also matters. Beyond’s Kanna-Konsek believes that live action works best because it helps kids to identify with characters on-screen and encourages them to emulate what they see. “But animation can also be a useful tool when seeking to teach morals and values,” she adds.

“Excuse the pun, but get the chemistry right and STEAM and STEM shows can enjoy a long shelf life because the content continues to be relevant,” Kanna-Konsek continues. “Our do-it-at-home series Backyard Science has been going since 2003 and is as relevant today as it was 15 years ago.”

Demand for STEM and STEAM content is being bolstered by the emergence of Asia as a very vibrant market, with China, in particular, set to become increasingly important. Rosen points out that Portfolio recently made major sales to Chinese SVOD services, including The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That! and DOKI to iQiyi, one of the biggest digital platforms in China. There is strong demand for both science- and nature-based edutainment in Asia, Rosen adds.

The huge appeal of STEM and STEAM in Asia is the cornerstone of the business plan for Calm Island, a South Korean and U.S.-based educational content developer.

“The reality is that the private education markets in Asia are far, far deeper than in Europe,” observes David Roberts, founder and CEO of Calm Island. In Korea, for example, up to 22 percent of household income is spent on education. In China, the preschool education market is worth $55 billion.

Calm Island’s 52×11-minute CGI-animated learning adventure series Badanamu Cadets is aimed at engaging 4- to 7-year-olds in STEAM topics. Its ultimate purpose is to provide a pathway towards educational apps, such as Calm Island’s Bada’s Learning Adventure. The subscription platform teaches reading, music, science, math, coding and art and features more than 50,000 activities and exercises organized into structured learning paths.

Roberts argues that while television is the best entertainment platform, he believes that STEM and STEAM educational objectives are best delivered through VOD experiences and multimedia apps.

“Some of the concepts in STEM are hard to explain purely visually,” Roberts says. “Education is more effective in applications where kids can interact and experiences can be better tailored to individuals. One of the things we are beginning to see is the creation of smart VOD platforms, and that’s very relevant to the provision of STEM learning materials.”

He predicts that the next big leap forward in kids’ education will be the development of artificially intelligent robots to teach children. “We’d like to have a Badanamu robot who would walk to your house, talk to your child and teach them. The potential for AI in areas such as STEAM is just phenomenal. It’s extraordinarily effective at teaching math and English, and as the AI and voice-recognition technology improve, I’m sure AI will become more dominant.”