This blog series follows on from the last of a series of development frameworks for narrative screenworks from mobile and short films to long running TV series. The aim of this blog is to look at the very first stage of development for children’s television both live action and animation. It is relevant for work intended for everything from traditional broadcast to self-made web series.. This is the stage of development where many options are possible but it is crucial to avoid many simple mistakes.
As with the development frameworks these notes will cover the three main screen formats for TV and the Web – the series, the serial and the TV film. However, before we delve into the specifics of each format it is worth considering a few general points about children’s audiences and what in general makes a successful children’s work.
The key points here are to remember that children are not one audience, and that as they grow up, they carry with them their past screen favourites. Generally, children are broken down into the following audience groups – pre-school; 4-6 year olds; 6-12 year olds; young teens, and young adults. Though some works obviously cover more than one age range it is always useful to think about a specific age group when working up an idea. This is not only because many broadcasters and funders relate to specific age groups, but also because they each have specific fascinations and approaches to the world.
With regard to the former it is worth noting that most broadcasters, sponsors, and funders want to tie their work into the educational system in some way, as this often not only provides funds, but crucially direct links to schools etc. With respect of the latter knowing what your audience is watching now, what they have watched in the past, and what fascinates each age group is critical to creating a great children’s work. Recreating the ‘Dumping Ground’ or ‘Skins’ is not likely to bring in a big audience.
A simple rule of thumb is that most people, children included, like watching material that includes people of their age range, or a group they aspire to be like. So think about the age of your key characters and whether or not they are aspirational for a particular group of children. ‘Harry Potter’ was not just a success because it was about children but also because it was saying children could aspire to do/be magic – there are not many children who would not like to be able to do this!.
Then there are the adults, including parents. Though many children now watch on thier own, not only do parents tend to control pre-teens watching habits, but in the pre-school group will generally be part of the audience. So in creating a great work you need to think not only sometimes about how will parents respond to your idea, but how will they actually participate. The reverse is often true of teen and young adult works, of course.
Finally, one of the most interesting aspects of audiences is how they sometimes select something which is not aimed at them at all initially. So for many soap operas there is a big audience of 6-12 year olds, while many children’s animation works attract cult adult audiences, especially amongst students.
Live Action v. Animation
It will not have escaped your attention that animation dominates much of children’s viewing. For children under 12 it is now the dominant form. One of the obvious reasons for this is animation allows the creation of a fantastical world easily, and creates less barriers of identification than live action characters. For pre-school, animation also allows for very simple characters, and less complex settings etc. which in turn tends to allow for easier engagement.
However, for young teens and young adults live action is the preferred form. This is in part owing to the need to identify strongly with characters in these age ranges, and the desire to move away from the animated world of their younger selves.
One thing to remember though no matter what the form, the screenplay still has to work!
The Big Themes
As with all screen narratives children’s work relates to big emotional themes which also underpin adult works. However, some key themes tend to dominate children’s works. The major one of these, across all age ranges, is the desire for justice or to put it another way to be treated fairly. This is not surprising given that the vast majority of a child’s life is governed by adults and other children, where they often feel they have not been treated fairly.
For very young children the desire for order is very strong, reflected in narratives which return everything to where they were are the start of the narrative – as is found in all successful sitcoms and long running series. For teens as a whole it tends to be the question of identity and validation as they seeks to work out their position in the world. While for young adults it the desire for love, as they seek to establish bonds outside the family, and amongst their peers.