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SPADA 2014: bloody(-minded) kids

Kidsonscreen presented a risky session at SPADA, offering producers the chance to meet their audience in the form of three teenagers who’d earlier this year been members of the International Jury for kids’ festival Prix Jeunesse.

PAX_SPADA2014_KidsPanel

In the event, the session was entertaining and informative – just like kids TV is supposed to be, even if the teens presenting didn’t give that tick of approval to very much they’d seen, at Prix Jeunesse, on NZ screens or elsewhere.

Back in February, Kidsonscreen made its call for 12-15 year olds to take part in a Prix Jeunesse jury, offering opinions and judgements on a range of programming.

20 kids were selected and spent a weekend watching shows, and voting on them. Their votes had been added to those of six other international juries to determine the winners, who were announced in June.

On Friday, Henry Hickman, Murdoch Keane and Saffron Calman-O’Donnell wagged school to take part in the SPADA session. Kidsonscreen chair Janette Howe shared clips from some of the programmes the kids had judged for Prix Jeunesse, the kids offered their opinions with a searing if refreshing lack of compassion and considerable good humour.

Nia’s Extra Ordinary Life producer Kerry Warkia also participated, although up against three teenagers she didn’t get a lot of chance to offer input.

The winner of the Prix Jeunesse International Jury gong was Matchbox Pictures’ Nowhere Boy. Creator Tony Ayres played well with the audience of professionals on his recent trip to NZ, including at a workshop on creating compelling kids drama. How did the show play for those for whom it was intended?

Nowhere Boys

Matchbox Pictures’ Nowhere Boys, a winner at Prix Jeunesse

It’s fair to say they weren’t too impressed, claiming they found the characters box ticking stereotypes, lacking in diversity, and the VFX crap.

“Tell us what you really think,” somebody might have said. Even without the invitation, they did, merrily excoriating an assortment of Prix Jeunesse nominees including Dutch Bente’s Voice, a reality show going behind the scenes of talent show The Voice (“The people who like shows with cute kids who sing are grandmothers, not kids”) and the BBC’s Wolf Blood (“We’re sick of werewolves”).

Despite the teens’ lack of compassion for material they hadn’t enjoyed or respected they weren’t just being bloody-minded and were able to offer reasonably rational arguments supporting their opinions.

Of what’s on TV, they were particularly uninterested in most US and UK TV drama aimed at them, calling it too produced, too dramatised and too formulaic. Of the clips shown during the session they claimed to have found the (non-English language) European material on offer more engaging, because those shows offered greater diversity of characters, were less obsessed with casting actors who “looked like models”, and offered storylines with a sense of reality and some heart.

Of the lessons that might be learned, the easiest one was hardly news and not restricted to TV production: trying to please teenagers is like trying to herd cats. Adult expectations of what would work or be appropriate for teen-targeted programming sat in one place. Past the second star to the right and carry on ’til morning and you’ll find the opinions of the teens.

One of those differences is at the very basic level of awareness and discovery. The question of where the panel found stuff to watch drew a sarcastic “There’s this thing called Google”.

Google, YouTube and peer recommendations were the three main routes to discovery. Not on the list were TVNZ and MediaWorks’ ondemand sites.

As so much of the searching for new content happens on YouTube (and not just by teens), it seems it would be smart for broadcasters to be where their potential audience is – not giving away shows for free, but at least offering trailers, teasers, links to ondemand viewing or to show websites or social media presence.

A search “NZ music” on YouTube returns hundreds of music videos on themed channels. A search “NZ TV” doesn’t return any channels. Since YouTube is free and teens clearly don’t spend their time hunting down broadcasters’ offering where the broadcasters want them to, it might be worth trying to take the mountain to Mohammed.

Asked what recent local content they’d watched, the panel’s response was “Local content?”

Kaitangata Twitch

Kaitangata Twitch, a nominee at Prix Jeunesse 2012

After further prodding Kaitangata Twitch scored a mention, as did Supercity and Diplomatic Immunity – neither of which were made for teens. None had heard of KHF Media’s Girl vs Boy and all were too young to be the target market for the cpmany’s Reservoir Hill.

The panel went further, noting that in the absence of teen drama they watched adult drama – although that pretty much guaranteed they weren’t going to be exposed to characters they recognised, “teenagers like us”.

What had they taken away from the range of programming they’d been exposed to by being part of the Prix Jeunesse jury?

They believed that the (non-English language) international programming they’d seen treated teens as being more mature than the majority of US and UK programming, and that such a level of sophistication was welcome.

“Make shows for children that don’t make us feel like idiots,” was one suggestion. “Shows that deal with issues we face but show things getting better.”

To be fair to producers, that probably describes the show a lot of them think they’ve made.

“We have short attention spans so we like stuff that’s short,” said one, recommending web-content such as Scandinavian series #lovemilla (here but not subtitled). Friends of one of the panel members are currently embarking on their second webseries.

Based loosely on Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost and a follow-up to their equally Bard-driven Nothing Much To Do. Lovely Little Losers is currently on Kickstarter, seeking $4000. The campaign zipped past its target on day one and currently has over $19,000 pledged.

Not only is that number huge, it’s especially impressive when one considers much of the target audience isn’t old enough to have a credit card. It also explained why some of the panel had been rolling their eyes during the preceding session on crowdfunding. As the NZGDA’s Stephen Knightly said in a later session, “if you don’t understand it, find a 12 year old”.

Lovely Little Losers

Lovely Little Losers

Given the general push towards transmedia content, to having a presence everywhere and giving viewers the opportunity to engage across many social networks, the panel didn’t express any enthusiasm for all that extra stuff, suggesting that – once they’d found something to enjoy – watching it was enough. Although they were familiar with fandom and the levels of engagement and commitment some people went in for, the panel members suggested they didn’t initiate any such activity. They might respond to a friend’s facebook post about something they’d watched. But not much more.

The session offered plenty to think about, challenging some of the thinking about what works and what doesn’t. Of course, making big changes based on the opinions of a panel of three teenagers is unlikely. It will be interesting to compare the opinions and rationales presented with the results of NZ On Air’s study into audiences for kids’ programming when that comes out.

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