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A Lot to Learn

Reams of research turns kids TV into Preschool 101 11/02/2007 08:00:00 PM Eastern

In a sleek New York office, a confidential 210-page document serves as the key to what some believe will be the next breakout hit in pre-school programming: Super Why! It contains extensive research on the most effective ways to deliver messages to kids about basic literacy and reasoning while making the message entertaining. That document is a road map for the animated series, which launched weekdays on PBS a month and a half ago and stars super-heroes with reading expertise.

It's also a great example of just how much research goes into some of television's most ambitious children's programs by the networks and program producers that make them, and how much more show producers now know about how to teach kids via television. Most of all, it proves that good educational television has come a long way since Sesame Street, which is now in its 38th year and helped set the standard for educational TV.

Backed in part by a federal grant to boost literacy among children from low-income families, Super Why! has received a 65-episode order. Most kids shows get orders of 20.

It's the first series from the year-old Out of the Blue Enterprises, launched by two former Nickelodeon executives, including the show's creative engine, Angela Santomero. More than a decade ago, Santomero co-created the groundbreaking Blue's Clues series for Nick Jr.

To many observers, that 11-year-old series, which continues to air daily on the Viacom outlet, is marked by an interactive approach that seeks to get kids involved—talking to the screen—as the little viewers receive three clues per episode that lead to a lesson. Soon after launch, its ratings topped even those of the venerable Sesame Workshop series, and research showed it scored higher in keeping kids locked in. “Blue's Clues may be one of the stickiest television shows ever made,” wrote Malcolm Gladwell in the best-seller The Tipping Point.

Say it in Spanish

The triumphs of that show and others come as the goals of kids television have broadened as well. Now it's not just about reading, simple math and socialization skills. Programs also are devoted to nurturing good nutritional habits and understanding the nuances of multiculturalism, and even teaching Spanish.

Nick Jr. and Playhouse Disney rely on consultants to monitor how Spanish phrases are integrated in bilingual shows. Nickelodeon's Dora the Explorer, which premiered in 2000, teaches a Spanish word or phrase to kids in each episode; it is often useful for solving a problem. Nickelodeon uses up to three consultants to advise specifically on language. And a year ago, Playhouse Disney launched the bilingual Handy Manny, which also teaches basic Spanish and offers exposure to Latin culture.

Cartoon Network, like others, has worked with academics on how to weave messaging about healthy eating into programs while looking to curb childhood obesity. Some of the material is, undeniably, defensive: The kids networks (and their advertisers) are under heavy scrutiny by advocacy groups and the FDA to present a healthy alternative to fast-food and junk-food messages. There were an estimated 40.1 million children under 9 years old in 2006, up from 39.8 million the year before. So there's a market to be served, and nurtured, too.

Producers have consulted academic types for years while developing children's shows. “Bringing these two communities together is not new,” said former UCLA educational psychologist Gordon Berry, who worked on Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids in the 1970s.

But the complexity of the research and level of investment involved in curriculum development have increased. “There have been major advances in research showing how brains develop and when it's the right time to learn,” said Deborah Dugan, president and CEO of Entertainment Rights North America, which produces shows for the one-year-old Qubo, a joint venture with NBC. “We keep up with these findings and constantly monitor cultural trends and parents' expectations.”

And they aren't alone. Cartoon Network has a 19-page, highly academic document that even quotes Sigmund Freud. Some recommendations include using “powerful and interesting role models to encourage positive self-identify formation,” and emphasizing content that encourages a parent and child to share some laughs. After all, that's part of the growing-up process.

At Discovery Kids, educational psychologist Laura G. Brown, working with pediatricians, spearheaded the development of a curriculum that led to the creation of a penguin character, Paz, who serves as a guide through the “Ready Set Learn!” morning pre-school block.

Among other goals, the friendly Paz was created to serve as an inspirational character to encourage kids to have confidence in themselves in overcoming challenges. For example, in one of his interstitials, Paz is unsure how to fly a kite but doesn't give up, asking friends for help and ultimately succeeding.

Seeds of the success of Blue's Clues can be found in its producers' unwavering commitment to research, aimed at ensuring that the content resonates with its audience. The producers made weekly trips into schools to hold focus groups led by experts in educational psychology, and episodes were tested multiple times at every stage from script development forward.

The same path continues at Super Why! Producers have a team of advisers with a range of expertise, charged with staying on top of the ever-evolving mass of research on child development. Their advice stretches from how to create the most compelling characters to the most effective tactics to get kids to play along at home.

“There has to be a level of entertainment for kids to learn from what they see,” said the 39-year-old Santomero.

Before the team behind Discovery Kids' Hip Hop Harry turned to psychologist Berry for research guidance, the series had more unscientific roots. Executive producer Claude Brooks was visiting his 7- and 9-year-old nephews and trying to help them with their homework. He wasn't having much luck, but realized they seemed to have little trouble internalizing lyrics from artists such as Lil' Bow Wow.

“They weren't retaining much of anything, so I started freestyle rapping some of the concepts and they understood right away,” said Brooks, who formerly produced programs for MTV. “I felt there was a show where we would have a mechanism to teach kids, and they wouldn't feel that they were being taught at all.”

Brooks and co-executive producer Gelila Asres then created a giant lovable bear with the trappings of a rap star. Next, they turned to Berry to create a curriculum guide, which mapped out lessons for particular episodes covering topics from primary colors to ABCs. Catchy beats were attached to the lessons, and the series launched a year ago Monday through Friday as part of the “Ready Set Learn!” block.

'A steady beat'

At least two Disney series have roots in research showing that messages linked with catchy music have a better chance of resonating with kids. Little Einsteins includes classical music in each episode, and producers hope that can help kids learn to keep “a steady beat,” which research shows can foster early reading skills. And Disney will use a similar tactic in the animated My Friends Tigger and Pooh, where producers hope a particular song will deliver a lesson about the importance of thinking before acting.

Disney also relies on research that indicates kids can benefit from developing a sense of humor. Its upcoming animated series Bunnytown uses “unrealistic” or “incongruous” situations that, while funny, also convey basic life lessons because they are so over-the-top.

There are more direct ways to teach kids effectively. Experts at Nickelodeon and PBS, for example, say that as a subtle way to promote literacy, all action takes place from left to right to try to train kids in the reading process.

Nick attempts to expose young audiences to words that may be a stretch for them, such as “investigation” or “paleontologist.” But the network is careful. Research shows that using visual explanations, along with multiple repetitions, can help “define” a word. But if Nick's kiddie focus groups find the vocabulary is too difficult or could cause a kid to turn away, Nick gets rid of it.

“What we've seen with the growth of kids television is not just dozens of shows and multiple networks for this age group, but we've all become much more focused on our research in finding ways that shows can connect with kids,” says Nancy Kanter, senior vice president, original programming, at The Disney Channel.

But producers have to make it fun. “There's an ongoing collaboration between academics and writers and producers,” said Alice Cahn, Cartoon Network's vice president of social responsibility, a new position. “We do our children a disservice when we separate learning from entertainment.”

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