Turn on the TV for your child twenty years ago, and they would’ve been greeted by a deluge of friendly human faces: Mister Rogers, Barney’s kid friends, and the children and adults who lived on Sesame Street. These human ambassadors greeted children with a warm smile and invited them to participate in their songs and adventures. Sometimes, they held out their hands and the children would touch the screen. I was once visiting a family in my neighborhood who had a two-year-old. As the kids in the video danced around, he danced with them. “Does he think they’re in the room with us?” I wondered aloud. “I think he does,” said his mother.
Somewhere around the mid 2000’s, culture changed again & the tide turned. The human faces gave way to animated ones, the voices grew higher-pitched, less realistic. The humans had been replaced by cartoons. Today, shows like: PAW Patrol, Doc McStuffins, Abby Hatcher, Nature Cat, Super WHY! And many others have not only changed the landscape but seem to have filled the airtime. In fact, two highly acclaimed PBS shows are animated shows based upon live action shows. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is based upon characters from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, a staple of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. WILD KRATTS brings back the Kratt brothers of Zoboomafu and presents the brothers on wild adventures in animated form. Why has the preschool TV landscape changed so drastically, even down to the blueprint of what makes a preschool show?
To tease out this question and see what we can find, I started at the beginning. Prior to the 1970’s, children’s television was largely a vehicle for advertisers to sell their products. However, legislation and public dissatisfaction with the status quo of poor quality preschool television in the 1970’s brought about a new era of children’s programming with shows like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Sesame Street, and a few old friends such as Captain Kangaroo and Shari Lewis. These shows had a combination of live action, songs, and puppetry. Sesame Street also had animation. These shows had some commonalities: the pace was slow, and the teaching was at the forefront of the entertainment. Sesame Street is the exception here, as it changed its formats to adapt to audience viewing habits, focusing mainly on fewer core puppet characters, much more comedy, and tightly themed shows. The other shows shared something else: they were hosted and guided by adults. Mr. Rogers said: “Those of us who produce television must assume the responsibility for providing images of trustworthy available adults who will modulate these experiences and attempt to keep them within manageable limits.” These adults were the captains of the ships, and their viewers were along for the ride.
These adult hosts guided kids into the 1980’s, and new shows were added. I think of the preschool shows of the 1980’s as concerts that would translate well to live stage shows. Two Canadian imports, The Elephant Show and Fred Penner’s Place, celebrated music in and of itself, introducing kids to original kids’ music as well as folk and classical music. They captivated preschoolers’ attention with their addictive songs. In fact, as a three-year-old child, I had three imaginary friends: Sharon, Lois and Bram. I can still sing their closing song by heart, too. The opposite of their live action counterparts, the animated shows of the 80’s were more story-based and featured child and animal protagonists. The adults in animated shows generally popped up to answer a question and then disappeared. Here, the kids were steering the ship.
In 1990 Congress passed the Children’s Television Act, increasing demand for educational kids’ shows. Nickelodeon and Disney joined PBS developing preschool programming. The decade built off of the success of children’s entertainers with shows like: Barney & Friends, Lambchop’s Play-Along! And The Wiggles. Shari Lewis called Lamb Chop’s Play-Along! the first “anti-couch potato” show. She said: “our goal is, don’t just sit there – come play with me.” She aimed to “attack the shorter attention span of today’s children with a fast-paced show using colorful electronic effects.” For that reason, one could say that Shari Lewis was the first “pseudo-interactive” TV show host.
“Pseudo-interactive” shows were all the rage in the 2000’s. Shows from this period included: Dora the Explorer, Blues Clues, and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Blues Clues was one of the last live action (albeit, with animation) shows. Was this the beginning of the animation explosion? Animated characters were definitely gaining traction at this point, though Blues Clues kept the human element to appeal to children.
Most of these shows were segmented: a song, a joke, reading a book. “Dora the Explorer” follows a formula, yes, but each episode is one continuous story. According to a 2002 Newsweek article, in the 1970’s psychology professor Daniel Anderson studied why kids could sit still for an hour to watch Sesame Street. He’d assumed that kids had short attention spans. He went into his experiment hypothesizing that fast-moving images and sounds captured kids’ attention. However, what he discovered was that kids’ attention spans wandered most during transitions between segments. Anderson ”hypothesized that even young children watch TV for the same reason adults do: to enjoy good stories. To test that theory, he sliced up Sesame Street skits so the plot no longer made sense. Even 2-year-olds quickly realized the story was amiss and stopped watching. Some knocked on the TV screen. Others called out: ‘Mommy, can you fix this?’ Over years of research, Anderson reached a startling conclusion: “Television viewing is a much more intellectual activity for kids than anybody had previously supposed.”
Animation can tell these stories and weave colors and lines into rich fantasy worlds or show real-life things kids might never have the chance to see. Martin Kratt, the co-creator of live action Zoboomafu and animated WILD KRATTS said: “We’ve been filming wild animals all around the world since we were in college, and no matter where we go and what amazing animals we have been lucky enough to film, there have always been those incredible things that are next to impossible to catch – like the battle between sperm whales and giant squid. Now we can bring these greatest animal moments to kids through animation, combined with laugh-out-loud funny adventure stories.”
When I think of funny kids’ shows, animation will always come before live action. Maybe it has to do with the timing of animation, it’s much faster-paced. Dr. Dimitri Christakis has researched the way different forms of screen time affects children’s ability to learn and found that exposing children to frenetic animation or fast-moving video “conditions the mind to a reality that doesn’t exist.” With so many of today’s children’s programs so focused on fast-paced, addictive cartoons and easily accessible streaming playlists across multiple devices, this reality is even more magnified. According to the book The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers: “Academics who’ve studied Rogers’s work often marvel at how young children calm down, pay attention, and learn so much from this television production — and at how they remain calm and centered for some time after watching the Neighborhood. Rogers himself put great care into the pacing of the program to help children slow down and steady themselves…One of Rogers’s film editors, Pasquale Buba (who went on from the Neighborhood to Hollywood to edit dozens of feature films), explains that Rogers deliberately lengthened scenes as the theme week progressed, so that the children would get used to an environment that extended their attention spans as they became more and more familiar with the story line.”
The strength of live action is in the faces. There’s something about seeing a human face. Almost all humans are exquisitely attuned to facial cues. Newborns’ vision is sharpest eight inches away, in order to learn their caretaker’s face for survival. In a classic study by Robert Fantz, young infants stared twice as long at a black-and-white simplified human face than black-and-white concentric circles. What’s more, we humans tend to mimic the facial expressions and postures of others. For instance, one study had students watch a video of a man recounting a happy or sad story. They were videotaped without their knowledge, and when scientists watched it back, they found that the facial expressions mirrored those of the storyteller.
With all of these pros and cons, I decided to conduct my own, not very scientific, research. I polled some friends in and outside of the industry asking whether people preferred live action or animated shows as children. The respondents were a good mix of ages. The results were 65-35 in favor of animation. Someone commented that live action equaled learning in his mind, and animation meant entertainment. He preferred learning.
Someone else said: “Oh, without a doubt, I liked animation. The real adults always seemed to be talking down to me, except Mister Rogers and Sesame Street, because they seemed to care about kids.” Mr. Rogers would be pleased to hear this; he’d once remarked: “children can spot a phony from a mile away.”
The through thread seems to be authenticity. The stories must come from a good heart, no matter whether the storytellers are lines and colors or real people. We spoke with Howard Blumenthal, creator of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego to get his thoughts on where we are headed.
“With technology growing so user-friendly, we’re seeing more kids making their own content, specifically on YouTube.” Blumenthal, who now tells live action stories through one-on-one interviews throughout the world (www.kidsonearth.org) strongly believes in “the value, interest and marketplace for children (and adults) telling their own stories in their own ways, sometimes through live action, sometimes through CG or AR or mixed reality, sometimes a combination.”
Kids want to see themselves on screen. With so much technology, parents want their kids to connect with humans. Perhaps that’s why Ryan’s Mystery Playdate which ranked #1 has done so well with kids 2-11 years old. That connection is the great strength of live action. As CGI gets more sophisticated, the possibilities broaden for live action-animation hybrids like Dino Dana and Odd Squad. As long as the content is good, it will work. Blumenthal adds: “A solid creative producer and production team, working with a talented performer or group of performers, relies upon a combination of research and instinct, but the hits come from instinct.” That’s why creators of children’s media should not rely on trends, because there’s nothing new under the sun. Live action will almost certainly come back.
Which do you prefer, animation or live action? Please take our poll and comment here.
Written by: Katherine Barfield
Edited by: Magaly Faria
Graphic design: Isabel Marte