What Can We Learn From Kids’ TV From Around the World?
by Scott Traylor for the Children’s Media Association | Bay Area
In November the Children’s Media Association | Bay Area chapter (CMA BA) in cooperation with the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL), hosted a special open event to CMA members and the community. On tap was what is called a “Suitcase Show”, which included award winning and noteworthy nominations from the PRIX JEUNESSE INTERNATIONAL competition. Prix Jeunesse is French for “Youth Award”, but it’s also the name of a German awards show that promotes excellence in television for young people. Every two years hundreds of media creators from all over the world meet in Munich to review and select the best of the best of children’s television shows created mostly by public broadcasting stations.
The majority of the participants arrived with the objective of getting an overview of the best children’s programmes that are produced around the world, being aware that it is a material that would otherwise be difficult to access. They came with the expectation to identify what topics are addressed in other countries, and to analyze the perspectives and the way stories are presented to the audience.
The discussions, based on different experiences and areas of knowledge, focused on the narrative approaches and audiovisual techniques and, of course, also brought up a reflection on deficiencies that were identified from a cultural, Mexican perspective.
The feedback from the workshop participants proofed that the presentation of the Suitcase became a personal experience for them. Analysing the outstanding productions from different parts of the world enhanced their understanding of quality in children’s programming, and fostered their awareness of how to approach issues in programmes for young audiences. The Suitcase workshop broadened their horizons of what could and should be done in Mexico, always for the benefit of children and young people.
The students were keen to defend their analysis of the videos and confident to voice specific criticism, especially as some of the productions concerned them as immediate spectators, referring to a period in life in their near past.
It was great to see that the workshop participants draw inspiration from the diverse programme presentations, for own ideas and projects. They were acknowledging the quality of programming for young audiences that are being carried out internationally, which, above all, made them look at the challenges of producing for children, a field that it is little or not attended so far in Mexican universities.
During the last PRIX JEUNESSE judging season, over 400 judges came together to review hundreds of entries from 50 different countries. The traveling Suitcase Show includes selected winners and noteworthy nominations from the PRIX JEUNESSE. While the show travels to many cities around the globe and the US, it has not returned to San Francisco for many years, so it was a special treat for those who attended!
CMA was able to pull in international children’s television expert David Kleeman for the evening. David is a strategist, analyst, author, speaker, and promoter of the PRIX JEUNESSE Suitcase Show. He’s been traveling around North America and other parts of the world since the mid 1990s to share insights and ideas found in the Suitcase collection. The screening format changes a little bit from city to city, but generally is a full day of watching choice selections from the awards show, followed with discussion breaks every few hours throughout the screening.
As David often mentions before the beginning of such an event: “I don’t show these programs because they are better than what we make here in the US, I show them because they are different than what we make.” These shows are usually not the bread and butter of the stations they come from, they are not the “SpongeBob SquarePants” of their respective countries. Often times submissions to the PRIX JEUNESSE are what submitting producers are most proud of about their work, and David hopes it inspires children’s media creators to take more creative risks with their own work.
Over the course of the afternoon and evening for this recent Suitcase screening, about 50 attendees watched 21 selected clips from across three different age groups: (1) up to 6, (2) 7–10, and (3) 11–15. Shows were also segmented into fiction and non-fiction categories. Only a quarter of the clips were recorded in English, and many had English subtitles. Almost all of the shows were live action as opposed to animated.
A 20-minute discussion was planned in the middle of the screening, and again at the end of the evening. Reflecting on the first dozen or so clips, the Pythagora Switch – Marble Brothers episodes from Japan were a huge hit with the audience and a great conversation starter to get the ball rolling. A playful story told through three colored balls and a Rube Goldberg machine. Story, marble contraptions, and musical score were all tied together perfectly, concluding with rousing cheers of delight from the audience.
During another group discussion, the audience strongly responded to the poignant German perspective on guns in America with the clip First Time in USA. In this show, the co-hosts are stunned at the ease of access as well as number of guns owned by one family in Texas. The surprise and shock of these teenage observers is palpable, and the discussion from the audience equally intense addressing not only the problem with guns in the US, but also the creators’ intent and creative direction. Is this a documentary? Is this a critique? Were editing choices made to sensationalize the content? How was this family selected to be included in the series?
The audience also connected to the sensitivity and courage of the Australian show “First Day”, which tells a gripping story of a transgender student named Hannah getting a fresh start in a new high school. This is a daring production that’s wonderfully balanced. The audience felt their own heartbeats race as fast as Hannah’s while watching. First Day was the winner of the PRIX JEUNESSE Gender Equity Prize.
Audience members also enjoyed critiquing many other clips from the Suitcase, which included:
“Japangle”, a show that explores the art and science behind Japanese toilets with a look at one custodian who takes great pride in her work.
The story of “My Best Friend Marlon” looks at the seeds of jealousy between two boys who are friends, an emotion rarely seen between boys on American television.
The Norway production on child sexual abuse — “My Body Belongs to Me” — is vitally important information for all children throughout the world to learn. But it left the audience wondering whether such a show could make it on air in the US?
Two other Norway shows embodied lighter themes. “Songfoni” is a beautiful tribute to music and play for their own sake; and “Bo Bear” follows the adventures of a stuffed toy bear that only comes to life when a child is nearby.
If you’re an American, watching television shows produced in the US is a lot like looking into a mirror. We see things that are familiar about ourselves, and our culture. But watching this Suitcase collection is much more like looking through a window, where we’re given a view into different understandings of living, and different perspectives on other cultures. This empathy and these learnings are powerful and mind opening. And while children around the world are very much the same from a child development perspective, their situations and circumstances are vastly different everywhere else in the world.
The content, the themes, the pacing of these shows are all very different from what we’re used to seeing here. Broadcasters overseas touch on subjects and stories that are challenging to talk about with American children. Topics like death, physical changes during puberty, sex and sexual abuse, issues related to becoming a transgendered child, feelings of love or jealousy for friends. You also can’t help but notice in these productions that children are in charge. They have agency. They have a strong self-confidence. The producers let kids be kids, and the kids in these stories are often in the middle of complicated issues and feelings. Parental supervision is rarely seen, and the kids on screen look like, well, normal kids, not aspiring young actors and actresses right out of casting. Kids depicted in many of these programs have an independence to roam far from home, through forests and fields, without concern and without parental oversight.
While this reflection on the Suitcase Show does not include complete list of programs critiqued, many of the shows listed here from this recent screening will stay with you for a long time. There’s a lot to unpack, to reflect upon, and to think about. In the end what the audience viewed, discussed, and digested were seeds the CMA likes to plant in the minds of its members to reinforce purpose and to elevate each professional’s career to a whole new level of thinking. The big question that lingers long after the Suitcase closed is do we have the courage to show such meaningful and important stories to children here in the US?
Impactful events like the PRIX JEUNESSE Suitcase Show are just part of what the Children’s Media Association (CMA) offers media professionals looking to network, grow, and improve their craft. The organization has expanded into the San Francisco Bay Area and is welcoming new members to join! It’s a lively group of professionals that work in many different areas of the children’s industry. From research to content creation, technology toys, apps, supporting existing companies as well as helping others launch brand new businesses. To learn more about upcoming events, check out the CMA national website and CMA BA posts on Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, and Twitter!
Scott Traylor is a CMA BA Advisor and also a long time CMA NY member. For more than two decades he has lead teams to develop hundreds of successful interactive media products for children. Scott is a board member, trustee, and advisor to many kid-focused companies. A former computer science educator at Harvard for over a decade, Scott continues to be involved in research, writing, and speaking on all things related to children and technology. He lives in Silicon Valley, searching for next big disruption in the world of kidtech.