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Archive for the 'Television' Category

The Thin Line Between Education and Entertainment

Friday, May 13th, 2011

[The following is a piece I wrote for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center‘s 2011 Leadership Forum, Learning from Hollywood, a cross-industry event that will explore new ways of bridging the perceived gap between entertainment and education. The event will be held in Los Angeles at the USC School of Cinematic Arts on May 16 & 17. ]

If you were challenged to define what math is, what would you say? How about science? What makes the two different, or maybe even the same? I started exploring the idea of what makes up these educational disciplines as a result of hearing the term STEM more and more in the news. STEM is a short-handed way of referring to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but is this term simply a collection of separate items, or could there be something larger at play here because of the overlaps between these disciplines? Is there greater benefit to the whole than simply its parts and could this concept be applied to other similar examples outside of education as well?

While noodling with the idea of categories and boundaries, I remembered a discussion I had with Vinton Cerf from Google many months ago. Vint is frequently cited as “the father of the Internet” a title he will quickly point out involves the contributions of many of his fellow colleagues, and not just those of his own.

During our meeting we talked about how Google looks at the world of content. Vint shared with me the following:

“In the academic world it has become traditional to speak of disciplines, and that’s an organizational artifact; geology, history, English, physics, chemistry, medicine, and so on. Yet when we dive down deep we discover this is all a continuum. These things are not really broken up with such hard walls and barriers between them. Understanding that those disciplines are actually related to each other in a very intimate way is an important thing. I want to be careful about the idea of organizing information into categories. That can be helpful abstraction but it’s dangerous if you actually believe these things are segregated from each other.”

Upon reflecting on Vint’s words, I immediately thought of a quote by the great media thinker Marshall McLuhan, who famously said:

“Anyone who makes a distinction between entertainment and education doesn’t know the first thing about either.”

Connecting the dots between the two statements came over me like a tidal wave. Could we as media creators, educators, researchers, whatever the industry, be carrying with us artificial boundaries that prevent us from making real breakthroughs in our field? If we look for new ways to engage audiences through media creation wouldn’t it be in defining new boundaries that reshapes society’s thinking about these boundaries?

Simply being aware that we have the ability to redefine those boundaries may actually be the first step in creating something larger, something that is truly breakthrough. How would you define the boundaries between education and entertainment? Or should we instead define the overlaps, or maybe even define how we wish those boundaries to be drawn? The overlaps appear to change and grow with every advance in technology. Their sum is greater than the parts. To separate the two diminishes our ability as creators to discover new opportunities and reach audiences in ways never before dreamed possible.

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Kids, Cartoons, and Sugary Cereal Ads

Monday, September 6th, 2010

While the sun is shining outside,  a child is eating vibrant colored cereal while watching a cartoon on TV.

Breakfast cereal is really not my thing. Sure I eat it, but when I’m reviewing commercials on TV for work, I’m usually looking for toys and techno playthings, not cereal. Recently however, while reviewing virtual world commercials as part of a new client request, I just couldn’t ignore the dozens of breakfast cereals being advertised to kids. After noticing how many there are I decided to start a little side project. I would watch one children’s television station on any given Saturday morning and see what shows up. To begin my experiment I watched a five-hour Saturday morning block on Nickelodeon. Here are a few of the cereal ads I saw:

  • Cinnamon Toast Crunch
  • Cocoa Puffs
  • Cookie Crisp
  • Cupcake Fruity Pebbles
  • Frosted Flakes
  • Honey Nut Cheerios
  • Lucky Charms
  • Rheese’s Puffs
  • Trix Swirls

These commercials are in such heavy rotation you could see most of them within about an hour, along with numerous yogurt, candy and restaurant ads targeting kids. (Just a note, Nickelodeon is not the only children’s channel to air these commercials. These same ads could be seen on Cartoon Network and Disney XD.)

The technicolor explosion of sugary cereal ads blew my mind. Wasn’t there some standard, at least a code of ethics in place, that prevented marketing these cereals to children during their morning cartoons? After doing a little research I learned in late 2007 the breakfast cereal industry announced they would self-regulate which products would and would not be advertised to children. They defined a number of industry guidelines; one in particular stated that this coalition of companies would not advertise cereals that contained more than 12 grams of sugar per serving to children. How much sugar did the cereals above contain? A quick trip to the supermarket revealed almost all skated just below the self-imposed rule of 12 grams per serving. But what was the standard serving size as part of this guideline? Almost all of these cereals recommended a serving size of 3/4 of a cup. Was that a lot? How much cereal does the average person eat for breakfast?

The next morning I went to the kitchen, poured myself a bowl of everyday, non-sugary cereal and measured it. I found I eat about 1 1/2 cups of cereal for breakfast. I then asked a number of kids, ages 11 – 14, to pour themselves a bowl of cereal, after which I measured each one. Their bowls ranged from 1 to 1 1/4 cups, 33 – 66% more than the recommended serving size.

This chart looks at a number of cereals advertised on television and compares the amount of sugar in the recommended serving size as well as other, larger serving sizes

The conspiracy theorist in me wondered if these cereal companies simply reduced the size of a single serving to guarantee they could get the sugar levels below 12 grams per serving. In an attempt to prove my theory, all I would need to do is find the Nutritional Facts for each cereal before the self-imposed 2007 regulations. Did you know that eBay and Flickr are both excellent resources for finding photographs of nostalgic cereal boxes? I couldn’t find all of the cereals listed above, but I did find a 1979 box of Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms. That year both cereals had a recommended serving size of one cup. Today, the recommended serving size is 3/4 of a cup.

This retro cereal box sleuthing proved nothing though. These cereal companies may have changed their ingredients over the years, maybe even realized that one cup of cereal was actually too much to eat in a single sitting. I started to wonder if all this sugar-talk was a moot point. Just how much sugar is actually okay to eat in one day?

In 2003, the World Health Organization stated that a person’s daily caloric intake should not exceed more than 10% from sugar. If a typical adult calorie count per day is 2,200 calories, the 10% ceiling translates into about 12 teaspoons or about 50 grams of sugar per day. After this announcement the US Sugar lobby had a fit with the WHO’s sugar guidelines and countered that the daily caloric intake of sugar could be as much as 25% per day. That’s about 30 teaspoons or 120 grams of sugar per day. Last year the American Heart Association recommended no more than 6 1/2 teaspoons or 25 grams of sugar per day for adult women, and no more than 9 1/2 teaspoons or 37 grams of sugar per day for adult men, recommendations below the WHO’s position. According to that math, if you have just one cup of any sugary cereal in the morning, and you wash it down with a cup of milk or orange juice, you’ve just about reached the upper limit of sugar intake for the day in a single meal. That means no more juices, cookies, sweets or deserts for the rest of the day.

If this country truly wants to reverse the growing childhood obesity problem, relying on self-imposed industry regulations for food advertising clearly won’t lead kids (or adults) to healthier eating choices. Like I said, cereal is not my thing, but I just can’t ignore what I see on children’s television every day. The food ads kids consume on a regular basis are far from sweet, and when you begin to pull back the curtain on this sugary controversy, you too may find you’re left with a very sour taste in your mouth.

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Calling Mr. Herman – The Return of Pee-wee Herman

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Pee-wee's Playhouse cast, starring Paul Reubens as Pee-wee Herman

Since the show went off the air in November of 1990, Pee-wee’s Playhouse has been frozen in time, largely enjoyed by an audience of older fans and their children who purchased DVD and VHS collections made available over the years. Yesterday, after almost two decades, Pee-wee’s Playhouse returned to the stage of Club Nokia in Los Angeles. The night started with a standing ovation for Paul Reubens, the visionary behind the lovable Pee-wee character, before the show officially started to a packed hall of almost 1,200 fans.

Once a couple of comedic formalities were taken care of, the stage curtains parted, and everyone in the room was instantly teleported back in time. The show’s set was unveiled in all of its technicolor glory, and after a friendly hello center stage by the lovable Chairy, the large talking light blue chair, you felt you were back in your parents living room eating a bowl of cereal while watching the original airing of Playhouse back in the 1980s.

Original cast members from the show made their appearance alongside Pee-wee. Miss Yvonne, the show’s favorite debutante, and Jambie, the helpful Genie who allows you just one wish a day, felt like you were having a get-together with old friends. New to the cast were others who played the roles of Cowboy Curtis and the King of Cartoons. New characters to the show were introduced in this episode which included Mailman Mike (sorry, no Reba the Mail Lady), Firefighter, Sergio, and a large, mostly silent Bear character.

All of your favorite puppetland characters were in attendance as well. Conky, the stuttering/dancing robot kicked things off with the secret word of the day (and everyone in the audience screamed real loud.) Pterri, the talking pterodactyl was also along side Globey, Clocky, Randy, the singing flower bed, Magic Screen, and a number of other inanimate objects familiar to the show.

The roughly 90 minute performance meticulously captured all of the qualities of the show, punctuated with the same sound effects used throughout the original program. Their was also a nostalgic cartoon, two infomercials, and even a 1950s public service announcement. One main storyline included the unfolding love story between Miss Yvone and Cowboy Curtis which felt as though it picked up right where the final on-air episodes of Pee-wee’s Playhouse left off. Alongside this story included Pee-wee’s wish to some day fly just like Pterri.

Paul Rubens’ performance was wonderful, and his costume and appearance looked as if it had been carefully tucked away in the family toy box, only to be brought out again in a compete pristine appearance, never having aged a day. Sound levels were not quite balanced and timing of some sound effects were off, but this could easily be overlooked for an opening night. Fans of the show may also wonder where the familiar music for the show, created by Devo front man Mark Mothersbaugh, might be hiding. The lighting and stage sets were all fantastic and worth the price of the ticket alone. While I was originally concerned about the venue switch from the Music Box to Club Nokia, the new performance hall was stunning and an excellent fit.

The humor, visuals, and music that made the original Playhouse television show live on now has the opportunity to be enjoyed by a whole new audience, and hopefully influence a whole new crowd of children’s television developers. What was great about the show back in the day was that it was a creative oasis in the middle of a large children’s television void. This children’s television emptiness still lives today, and networks should revisit the creative genius of this show that is as fresh today as it was when it launched. And stay tuned for more from Pee-wee. It’s rumored a new Pee-wee movie, and possibly two, are in the works.

There are 29 live shows left to be enjoyed between now and February 7, 2009. If I could have one wish from Jambie, I might ask for a few matinees for 18 and under shows. Except for a handful of jokes about an abstinence ring, reference to states that are accepting of gay marriage, and a small hint of toilet humor, the comedy on the whole was pretty harmless and could easily be adapted for younger audiences.

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Sesame Street and the Future of Learning – Interview with Sesame CEO Gary Knell

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

Gary Knell, Sesame Workshop CEO & President

In the last week of October, I was invited to participate in a conference that was held at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, CA called Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age. While I was at the event I had the opportunity to interview a number of thought leaders involved in the world of technology and learning. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street, I thought it fitting to begin with an interview I had with Gary Knell, President and CEO of Sesame Workshop. The following is a transcription of our discussion. Portions of this interview were edited for clarity. Stay tuned for more interviews in the coming days and weeks.


When looking at expanding into other mediums, how will you apply the Sesame philosophy?

In terms of metrics, do you see Sesame’s on air numbers going down and online numbers going up?

Is it more challenging today for creators of younger children’s content to be on air?

In regards to testifying on Capitol Hill about the Children’s Television Act, what outcome are you looking for?

Do we need the Children’s Television Act for other media formats?

What is the Cooney Prize?


Scott Traylor: Congratulations on the upcoming 40th anniversary of Sesame Street. It’s amazing to think how far the Sesame Street show has come, a show that is often called the “educational television standard.” When you look at expanding into other mediums, how do you think you will be applying that same Sesame philosophy?

Gary Knell: Well the show was invented 40 years ago and has now won more Emmy Awards than any television show in history. Recently we were awarded the lifetime achievement award at the Emmy’s with a standing ovation from, I think, everyone who ever worked in daytime television. But we know today that children are using applications that weren’t invented back when we started the show, and media and technology is getting faster, smaller, and cheaper. So it’s a world of on demand media, portability, those are places that we have to be because those are the access points to where kids are going to find Sesame Street. This was the first year we have ever seen more people and more children access Sesame Street content off television than on television. That’s through video on demand, that’s through iTunes, that’s through YouTube, that’s through our website. It’s through all of the different ways in which we are spreading our content now because that’s where the audience is going. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: So if you were just looking at the metrics of how viewers are watching Sesame Street, you see on air numbers going down and online numbers going up?

Knell: Well I think you’re generally seeing that across television, and certainly network television and PBS is no exception to that because there are a couple of things happening. Sesame Street was one of two preschool shows in 1988. Today there are 54 preschool shows on television. If you just look at market share, you’re not going to have the same market share today that you did 20 years ago. But more importantly, kids and parents are just accessing media differently today. For example, I was just chatting with someone at the University of California here who told me about her daughter who does not watch television but when she sees mom on her laptop, sits down in her lap and says, “Can we watch Elmo for ten minutes?” And I think that’s what’s happening now. I think you’re finding parents who are trying to have more of a control over their child’s viewing habits and behaviors. The TV becomes less of an available babysitter. Interactive technologies give us all the ability to have a more vibrant, richer learning experience than one-way television. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: Do you think it’s more challenging today for creators of younger children’s content to be on air? In part I look at the example of Viacom recently folding the popular preschool channel Noggin into Nick Jr. I see this move as something that’s a detriment to the entire preschool space. It’s too bad there aren’t more outlets like that.

Knell: Yeah, I think there were a combination of factors to that decision which may have had to do mostly with branding, as well as the economics of children’s programming, because there are 54 shows, so I think Nickelodeon probably made the decision that, well, we need to be under this umbrella because it will attract more people to watch our programs. But I agree with you. I think we have to have some safe spaces for children, where moms and dads can leave their kids in a place where they’re not going to be marketed to, where they’re going to be safe from commercial messaging, and it’s a place where kids are going to have a learning experience. Because we do know, even with the youngest kids, that television teaches. As Joan Ganz Cooney always says, “It’s not whether television teaches, it’s what does it teach.” So we’ve got to be in those spaces today just as we were in 1969. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: Related to those safe spaces for children, I know earlier this summer you were testifying on Capitol Hill in front of Congress about the Children’s Television Act, a bill that a major children’s media advocate, Peggy Charren, was able to see turn into law many years ago. Could you talk a little bit about your latest efforts and what you hope will be achieved?

Knell: Let’s think about how the world of media has changed in the last 20 years. The Internet did not exist 20 years ago, at least in its popular format. What we were trying to urge senators to do was to take a fresh look at this. Maybe the rules about having three hours of educational television on every broadcast station are sort of irrelevant today. I mean most kids don’t know what NBC is necessarily, or channel 9 versus channel 12. It’s really about shows that they’re watching or their platforms online. And I think you’ve got to redefine the space in terms of protecting children’s health and promoting education. So we were trying to promote the idea that there’s a real gap in educational programming today, especially for 6 to 9 year olds, in fact, a bigger gap than there is for preschoolers. The other thing is to make sure that children’s health and welfare are being taken into account. Things like childhood obesity, which have exploded in America over the last decade, in part, many people feel, because of the commercial messages targeting kids with foods that are less than healthy. These are things we were trying to urge Congress to take a fresh look back, 20 years after the initial act, which has become a little bit irrelevant if you go back and look at it. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: One might argue that it’s a bit of a challenge to think about the mindset of Children’s Television Act and applying it online or in other kinds of digital media delivery systems, that in principal it’s a great place to go, but in order to get everyone on the same page to try to implement it across numerous online media outlets, there’s a real challenge there.

Knell: It’s true. Although, you know, children’s content platforms are still children’s content platforms. And so you have these iconic characters who have a huge influence over children. When a major character on some channel is promoting double cheeseburgers, it has a big influence on a child’s behavior. It doesn’t really matter what the distribution platform happens to be. You’re looking at the use of licensed characters to promote unhealthy lifestyles. And those are the things that those of us who care about children’s health need to do something about, and that’s what we’re focusing on, along with a lot of other people. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: During the Breakthrough Learning event held at Google recently, you announced the Cooney Prize. Could you share a little bit about what you hope it will spark in the years ahead?

Gary Knell: Well we feel that we’re just beginning to unleash the power of digital media in learning applications. There are a lot of people talking about it. This is a way to specifically bring attention to 6 to 9 year olds, which the Joan Ganz Cooney Center is focused on, and try to promote digital learning for literacy using online platforms and also, specifically, mobile learning platforms. The iPod Touch, for example, could be a very powerful learning platform, without the cell phone component. And being able to connect kids to content in unique ways who otherwise disengage from learning could be a way that reaches them more directly. What we’re trying to do is spur innovation by having a prize contest. We will be giving cash awards to the most innovative people who come forward with the most innovative ideas. We hope this contest will spur innovation. We hope that these ideas can be incubated to go to market, and frankly, we hope that other people will copy this. We want to start a movement in which we challenge the conventional wisdom in the gaming community, for instance, that education can’t sell. This is the same challenge that Joan Cooney had before the launch of Sesame Street when she was told that education can’t sell on television. Well we certainly know that is not the case. You now have 54 shows on air, you have six competing networks, and all of this started because of a dinner party in Manhattan decades ago, when two people got together and thought about the idea of using television to teach children something, something more than showing them sugared cereal commercials. And look what happened. Now fast forward to 2009, we think we can spark a similar outcome. What we want to do is jump start this idea a little bit through these awards. (Return to Question Picker)

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15 Minutes of Insight at the Toy Store

Monday, September 21st, 2009

The new tween Dora the Explorer display that greeted me at the door

I raced out the door last night with one of my young friends for a trip to Toys R Us. By the time we arrived, we had 15 minutes before closing time. We would not let this fact deter our mission, to purchase a very specific Nintendo DS title.

Walking into the store, we were immediately confronted a five foot tall box portraying the tweenage Dora. It welcomed visitors to the store with an announcement for the Dora Links online world that would become available in another week or so. My young companion was pulling my hand, trying to steer me in the direction of the video games department. “Please! Hurry up! They’re going to close!” she yelled as we passed the Star Wars section. My jaw dropped. An amazing display of new Lego and non-Lego Star Wars products called out to me. I immediately lost track of time and space, wishing to savor each shiny new Star Wars item displayed before me. There were many life sized Clone Wars images hanging from the rafters, but every one was labeled “Star Wars.” I wondered if other adults knew about the Clone Wars television show and if they too thought there was some mistake with the display’s labeling.

My friend continued to pull me by numerous Hannah Montana products until finally we made it into the video games section. We found the Nintendo DS isle, but the ScribbleNauts title we came for was nowhere to be found. Clearly this area was a hotbed of activity. We groaned out loud that the shelf was empty and a nearby clerk headed to the storage room to find another box full of ScribbleNauts titles to restock the shelf. It was at that point that I ran into the store manager. Now was my chance to get the inside scoop!

We exchanged some small talk around the successful launch of ScribbleNauts. There was a $15 dollar in-store gift card offer with the purchase of this title. I wondered what the video game store down the street was offering to pull people in. I was happy to avoid that’s store’s nine foot evil battlebot display that guarded the door to announce some futuristic XBox Armageddon game. I was excited to buy my copy at a toy store.

The TRU manager I spoke with was certainly on top of her game, despite the corporate cost savings measure to cancel this year’s event to share the latest and greatest product info with all of their store managers before the holiday.

The Disney netbook

We stood nearby a shelf lined with about nine different netbooks, those trimmed down laptop-like computers which are best used for web browsing and email. They typically cost between $300 and $350, a sizable sum for a toy store purchase. The only netbook I recognized by name was the Disney netbook. The recently announced Nickelodeon netbook was nowhere to be found. I noticed how each netbook was wrapped with three bulky secure straps, making them look less appealing. I asked the manager how the netbooks were selling. “Well, we’re seeing some movement with them, but not a lot. My assumption is that they’re doing better at stores like BestBuy and other consumer goods stores like that.” I asked specifically about the Disney netbook and she said it wasn’t moving any more than the others, though its light coloring and prominent shelf position made it easier to find over its competitors.

Thinking about the latest news in the video games world, I asked how The Beatles Rock Band title was doing.

“The title is doing well. The peripherals are selling nicely too.”

“Anything else of note that’s selling?” Nothing came to mind for her.

“How about that giant Dora display?” I asked.

“Well, I think people don’t quite know what to make of that one yet. Diego recently has been attracting more attention than Dora. While there are still many people that love Dora, Diego is hot. It’s doing well.”

The manager left to follow up on a call in another part of the store. My young friend told me the reason why Diego is doing better than Dora is because there are animals on Diego’s show. “Oh,” I said. “That makes sense.”

I then brought my ScribbleNauts title, along with the latest Professor Layton title to the counter. I was so excited about a new Professor Layton game, the last one was fantastic.

Trying to strike up a similar conversation with the clerk who was ringing up our purchase I realized there are two kinds of toy people in the world; Those who love toys, love talking about toys, love the business of toys and those who are simply there to punch a clock. I wondered how could anyone not love the toy world, warts and all?

Having completed my purchase, it was announced over the store’s sound system that the store was closed. Now it was my turn to grab my young friend’s hand and drag her through the outside path of the store quickly looking at products we had yet to see.

We scrambled through preschool. Nothing noteworthy stood out which I found very odd. There is always something of interest in this part of the store.

Opposite of the preschool isle there was an end cap display that offered Transformers masks complete with voice pitch shift capability. Cool!

Then we passed a dozen or so miniature, battery powered jeeps and SUVs, the standing out from the crowd. They were all so gigantic in size! My friend wanted to stay here and explore, but there was no time. I wondered how anyone would have space in their garage for such a thing?

VTech's toy laptop

Then there was a VTech end cap displaying two different “laptop” computers. These simplified electronic toy computers were targeting young children, but would the 3 inch black and white screen display be enough of a toy offer to maintain a child’s interest, even if that toy was priced for 60 bucks? I began to wonder if the rapid pace of technology change would result in five year olds demanding a real laptop with a real screen next holiday season.

At the end of another isle I was surprised to find that Publications International was still selling their talking books. VTech also had a similar, but smaller talking book display. Okay, maybe I’m jaded, but didn’t the LeapPad and PowerTouch talking book craze move on already? I wondered if the buzz around the Amazon Kindle was behind the decision to keep selling these talking books for another year. Couldn’t any new features be introduced over last year’s model in the domain of toys, reading and technology?

On the way towards the store exit, we passed the Star Wars display again. “No! We have to go!” shouted my young friend. As I was being dragged by the giant Dora display for a second and final time I said “Adiós amigo” and headed out the door. There was so much left to see, so much more to talk about with the store manager. It would have to wait for another visit. Maybe Dora the Explorer is a fitting guest to welcome you to the store after all, whatever her age happens to be, especially if you like to explore the business of toys.

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