I’ve just come back from a conference on Children’s Theatre. It was a creatively driven event, full of passionate theatre practitioners, working in an area that’s exclusively subsidised and entirely self-regulatory. Funding comes in the form of grants or sponsorship, or very soft investment. Nobody’s heard of the word “compliance.”
Here’s an example: Two actors dressed as spies turn up on a housing estate and ask the kids “Have you seen Mr White?” For the entire weekend, kids gather round the actors and are actively embroiled with the spies, creating a mystery story, without even knowing that it’s just a story. It’s an immersive “happening” with the audience at the heart of it. It’s not about the money – it’s fully funded. The venture was a big hit, albeit with a very small, site specific audience. But the real point is, the theatre company could afford to take a creative risk. And what came out of it? Innovation. Boom!
Innovation’s best friend is “permission to fail.” And you can only risk failure when it isn’t all about the money. Like it or not, the Kids’ TV world has become all about the money – and the ratings, because the money follows the ratings. There are broadcasters and content creators who would love to take more risks but the commercially driven culture in the industry makes risk-taking too risky.
Investors, distributors, and potential licensees – all those on whom we rely for our gap finance – naturally want to know that they’re on “safe” ground before they write a cheque. “What’s the show like? Is it like Peppa Pig?” they ask, optimistically. “It’s just like Peppa Pig,” you lie. “But with chickens.” And then there’s co-production funding, which often dissipates the creative goals. You’re taking contradictory notes from umpteen quarters. You watch and weep as your idea becomes more anodyne, more marginalised, less original, until you realise that you are indeed making Peppa Pig with chickens.
Brave, aspirational shows do appear on the schedules, but one sometimes gets the sense that they’ve slid in through the back door, like an urban fox. This could be because someone took their eye off the ball but, in fairness, it’s more likely that a broadcaster took a deep breath and risked it and the producer managed to persuade the financiers that the risk was worth taking. If more risks were taken, there’d be more breakthrough shows. But – and this is a big “but” – there’d also be an equal number at the opposite end of the quality spectrum. Turkeys. Peppa Pig with turkeys? None of us can afford for that to happen. We’re all in it together. And we do not have permission to fail.
So within the current fiscal confines, how can we be more innovative? Well, available technology at a more affordable level than before offers increased potential for visual innovation. And editorially, some commissioners are beginning to ask for cross-over shows that will play on both a pre-school channel as well as channels for older kids. This opens up an editorial opportunity to fill the gap that has previously existed and push the boundaries of storytelling. What’s not to love?
But there’s another potentially exciting opportunity. Just as theatre practitioners have The Fringe as an R&D playground, those of us who make TV now have the internet. Digital platforms offer the possibility for piloting. Yes. Piloting. Experimentation. Permission to fail. It can’t be done on nothing, but it can be done on less.
Content creators now have a platform where they can try things out on an audience, albeit modestly, and test the temperature before large sums of money are committed. Broadcasters can experiment with content on line too and this is beginning to lead to full scale commissions. We can really get a sense of how a genuinely original idea would play out and can gauge audience reaction. We can afford to take the risk. This could and should result in more creative aspiration and artistic diversity which we all believe we owe to our audiences.
So let’s be optimistic that from little acorns mighty oaks may grow.
Mellie Buse is a children’s and family content producer, writer, script editor and creative consultant. Together with her writing colleague, Jan Page, she set up Adastra Creative Ltd, a writer-led independent TV production company, in 2006. She is one of our pre-MIPJunior 2014 kids entertainment ambassadors. You can follow her on Twitter here.
These posts are coordinated by Debbie Macdonald, a children’s media consultant. She was formerly VP, programming director at Nickelodeon UK, having worked in acquisitions at the BBC. You can find her on LinkedIn here, and on Twitter here.
Top photo via Shutterstock – Joana Lopes