The fruit fixation

Promoting healthy diet a high priority in burgeoning kid biz

There’s a new trend being served up in kids programming — it’s fun to be fit.

Hoping to counterbalance the supersize-me mindset that has contributed to an increase in juvenile obesity, Mipcom will feature a smorgasbord of children’s shows promoting healthy lifestyles, stressing not just activity but the importance of nutrition.

Rich Ross, president of Disney Channel worldwide, says the traditional approach of encouraging kids to be active simply isn’t enough anymore. “We have heard both from the research and consultants we deal with that it must be combined with information on healthy eating; it’s the combination that’s most powerful. If we want to help kids grow up healthy, we have an opportunity and obligation to provide programming with positive images and information and, at some level, teachable moments. I think it’s mandatory we remind kids that healthy eating combined with exercise is something good for their brains, bodies and futures.”

In 2004, Disney Channel launched an interstitial series, called “Captain Carlos,” that focuses on healthy eating. “That’s so Raven” has done episodes focusing on different eating issues, “because it’s a huge and powerful vehicle to reach girls,” Ross says.

Research shows that between more schools eliminating recess and after-school programs, combined with fewer community programs, the amount of time kids spend being physically active is dwindling significantly.

According to Nickelodeon TV president Cyma Zarghami, it’s an issue that is being addressed in many industrial nations around the world. “We started becoming very aware about three years ago, and it’s just not in America where it’s becoming a problem. The importance of teaching kids a healthy lifestyle is surfacing at the same time in many corners of the world.”

Knowledge is power

Zarghami feels it’s incumbent on the kids nets to be a source of information as well as an entertainment destination.

“I remember 19 years ago was the first time I heard the term ‘latchkey,’ but coming home to an empty house is almost the norm now. As a result, there is a growing number of kids who are responsible for feeding themselves. It’s important we give them the information so they can learn what foods they should be eating and also so they can ask parents to help them eat the right way.”

One of Nickelodeon’s main offerings at Mipcom Junior will be “LazyTown.” Created by Magnus Scheving, the series is an offshoot of Scheving’s popular books and live show that became a global phenomenon. A former two-time European champion and silver medalist in the World Championship of Aerobics, Scheving was inspired by the lack of role models for kids in his native Iceland.

“Years ago I saw obesity was going to be a problem,” he says. “In my mind, a healthy lifestyle is critical but you have to make it entertaining.”

Character issues

Brown Johnson, exec creative director for Nickelodeon preschool TV, agrees. “The secret of good television is great characters; characters that kids are going to emulate and role models that they’re going to follow. Kids who watch ‘LazyTown’ are not going to be kicking or shooting or eating junk food. They’re going to try to be doing one-arm push-ups.”

But as Scheving observes, “It’s harder to change the habits with older kids. We need to reach kids in the 2-5 range.”

Disney’s Ross adds, “You can’t start too young. Kids are in preschool at 2 years old and sometimes before. They are in these socialized environments and parents work. If you are in a group environment, kids learn really fast.”

As MarVista Entertainment managing director Fernando Szew points out, “In the preschool market, past successful properties like ‘Strawberry Shortcake’ don’t exactly trigger healthy eating. But now you see Cookie Monster has gone from just eating cookies to talking about how vegetables and other healthy foods not only are good for you but taste good, too.”

Tween connection

Szew thinks the key to reaching tweens is keeping the message subtle. Making its debut at Mipcom this year will be MarVista’s “Surprise! It’s Edible! Incredible!” The centerpiece of the show is a cook-off between teams of kids that have to make a nutritious meal from scratch then have it put to a taste test.

“The show appeals to kids because it’s fast-paced and fun,” says Szew, “but integrated into it is the message that eating right and learning to cook great meals that are also healthful isn’t as hard as they might think.”

The point of all these shows is to give kids a healthy foundation they can then share with each other and their parents. As Disney’s Ross says, “Our goal is not to end the conversation with our television shows but to begin one.”

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