Thursday, July 31, 2008

It isn't edutainment, it just fills time

Somewhere along the way, programming for children became sanitized claptrap designed to sell merchandise more than entertain by story telling.

What passes for plot are combinations of shallow storylines masquerading as problem solving, situational "dramas" (as much drama as there can be in the life of a person in a midddle-class, stable household who is under the legal age to vote, drive, work and consume alcohol) where nobody comes out a loser, and mindless, lightweight action sequences that stretch episodes to fill network program slots. There are no fables, parables or stories being told. There are no distinct characters. There are no winners and losers. Children's programs are just time fillers.

Of course, by being nothing but eye candy, these programs run little risk of being offensive. This creates commercial upside. By ostensibly offering educational value, they blunt the guilt parents feel for putting their children in front of the photon-blasting nanny for hours on end. This increases viewership counts and “brand awareness.” The absence of even a hint of something which may offend defaults these shows into a state of “mass appeal.” This, in turn, translates into other revenue streams, as merchandise bearing their likeness are a "safe" gift to children in just about any household.

Contrast this to children's entertainment of previous generations. The studios owned by the brothers Warner produced hundreds of action-packed mini-dramas that told a story with genuine characters. In a seven-minute short, they offer a far greater insight into life lessons: the progression of axe-pistol-shotgun-cannon-flowers-chocolates-engagement ring-wedding dress-wedding is representative of life coming at you fast. These brief episodes also introduce us to the types of people we deal with on a daily basis. Sylvester the Cat or Wile E. Coyote needing to secure at any cost mouse or bird for their next meal is the salesperson needing to close the next deal to make quarterly targets. Elmer Fudd, a vegetarian who hunts for sport, is the corporate leader with wealth considerably beyond his needs for sustenance who is hyper-competitive strictly for reasons of ego. Foghorn Leghorn is a loud mouth schmuck to his cube- I mean, barnyard-mates.

But these cartoons aren't educational! That’s ok, they tell good stories. Children recognize the difference between mindless, shallow forms of entertainment and content that is both deep and complex. They're too violent! Children aren't idiots. For the most part, they have an intuitive understanding of basic concepts of physics such as gravity, or force == mass x acceleration, or the destructive power of different forms of weaponry (ranging from anvil to firearm to disintegrator). It isn’t the responsibility of television to instill this appreciation, it's our responsibility as parents to teach them these things. Cartoons won’t "desensitize" factual knowledge tought by people. Indeed, statistically we've seen neither rise nor drop in incidents of free-falling anvil-related injuries in the last 50 years with the comings and goings of these cartoon shorts on broadcast television.

Besides, where else is a 6 year old going to learn how to conduct an orchestra? It's a handy skill when learning to appreciate Beethoven.