- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2009

If it ain’t broke, break it.

That’s my new motto to improve children’s television: Break it and start over. All TV could benefit from this advice, but none more than children’s programming. Will the networks follow my advice? Probably not, because if something is working on TV (i.e., making buckets of money) they don’t break it, they duplicate it, that way they can make even more buckets of money. For children’s programming, this usually means finding a brand that can be merchandised and building a show around that brand.

Now before I go any further, let me tell you that I understand that TV shows need to make money, especially since millions are spent developing shows that no one ever sees. But we have to balance this out especially since this is a medium that is so often used as a baby sitter.

Gone are the days of my youth where we had one TV in the house and we all watched it together. While I didn’t always like what my parents or siblings were watching, I always enjoyed discussing what I liked and disliked about shows and what they meant. A great improvement today would be to make a few shows that the whole family might actually enjoy watching together. Now it seems every room in the house has a TV or computer in it allowing everyone to isolate themselves and watch whatever they want. No discussions, no checking for appropriateness, it is just hundreds of mind-numbing channels.

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Right now, kids under age 6 watch TV an average of two hours a day. Kids and teens 8 to 18 spend nearly four hours a day in front of a TV, which comes out to about 40,000 commercials per year. To me, that is staggering. But what many people don’t realize (especially children) is that many of these shows are just one big commercial themselves where selling merchandise based on the show’s characters seems to be their main function. From a marketing standpoint, it’s brilliant, but I would rather have children learn to think for themselves and not be told by their favorite make-believe character what they should like.

I also don’t think you have to constantly be teaching kids how to count or spell to provide a good show. The lessons to be learned are endless, as are the ways to present the lessons. As Fat Albert used to say, “If you’re not careful, you might learn something today.” There was teaching on the show, but it was fun and it inspired my own saying on the subject, which is “fun learning, don’t seem like learning.”

The bottom line is we need to give kids credit. As a child I hated my “kid” records, but I loved my parents’ Beatles, Bob Dylan and, yes, even Patti Smith records. Kids get good music. Enjoying adult music with your kid is not like sharing other forms of entertainment with them. I wouldn’t let my 8-year-old read “The Tropic of Cancer” or watch “The Godfather,” but I would put on The Clash or an Arcade Fire album in the car any day. Good music is good music, period. I see this especially in letters I get from parents saying how much they enjoy having something to watch with their kids that they can actually stomach.

The reality is that kids grow up a lot more quickly today than ever before, yet they are still babied with the entertainment we provide them, especially with music and TV. So another big improvement I would make would be to stop talking down to kids. They get it. Even shows I really respect, like “Yo Gaba Gaba,” (who we are often compared to) has great musical guests but often has dialogue within the show that talks down to kids.

My conclusion is, it’s time to break some of the old models and rethink how the shows are done, and I think that it has got to start with giving kids some credit. So break it kids, because the revolution will be televised this time.

Scott Stuckey is the creator and director of “Pancake Mountain.”

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