Producing kids’ entertainment is serious business at DIC, at least when it comes to educational and informational content. From the company’s inception, providing children with programming that is both fun and valuable has been a core philosophy, says Robby London, DIC’s executive VP of creative affairs.
“This was always a mandate of the company. We start from the premise that children represent a unique audience. And the fact that we program to children we feel by definition requires additional scrutiny than those who program for an older audience because children are so impressionable.”
Even before the FCC enacted rules in 1996 to provide enforcement of the 1990 Children’s Television Act, DIC was already voluntarily exceeding any government requirements with shows such as the environmentally themed “Captain Planet.” It was a passion shared by DIC CEO Andy Heyward and London.
“My personal background is in psychology, with a special interest in developmental psychology,” London explains. “I started out in children’s television as a writer and was fortunate to work with educational consultants and psychologists. In some cases I was required to do it by the people employing me, and in other cases I sought it out myself when I needed advice for my scripts. So when I came to DIC, working with academia in terms of incorporating their input into the storytelling was natural and organic for me.
“And of course, now we do it on all of our shows that we are going to designate as educational.”
In fact, DIC wrote the book on it. In 1997, the company hosted a multiday conference that included educators, communications experts, academics and producers to address the issue of creating kids’ content.
“The purpose of the conference was to come up with a written set of creative guidelines for creators of children’s programming; to lay out what was appropriate and what was not appropriate, which nobody had ever done in a public way,” London says. “The networks had their own secret standards, but we did this in a very public way as a public-service action.
“Obviously it was targeted to our own creators, but anybody that wanted a copy could get one, including our competitors. And we revisited this with another conference three years later, around 2000.”
The guidelines were broken down into three categories –character and values, conflict and violence, diversity and stereotypes — that go beyond academics to include pro-social messages:
- Whenever possible, the storyline should promote and/or show examples of a healthy lifestyle and a clean environment.
- Antisocial behavior (for example, vandalism, aggression, criminal behavior or bullying) should be portrayed as unglamorous and unacceptable.
- It is important to understand that the concept of family is changing. When representing families, creators should be sensitive to the fact that families can be composed of single parents, adopted children, foster children or other household combinations.
“That is something no other studio has done, to this day,” London asserts. “It was a tangible example of something that DIC has done voluntarily to reflect our belief that children do represent a unique audience and we want to take special care with what we provide to them.”
To that end, DIC also established an Educational Advisory Board paneled by pediatricians, educators and children’s media experts, who have hands-on input.
“It’s a two-pronged process,” London says. “We have regular meetings and everybody has their say, and we select individual board members to get more hands-on involved. It’s not just names on the letterhead.”
Despite such efforts, there are those who remain skeptical of any Hollywood entity policing itself.
Debbie Blair, director of the San Diego chapter of the Parents Television Council, notes, “If a TV show hires their own committee to verify they have wonderful shows, it makes it less sincere. I do not know who was on the committee, who sets the standards and what they are. I guess I would need to find out more about it. But I’d rather that the FCC did their job because we know what their job is. It’s just that they are not doing it.”
London disagrees. “The FCC absolutely pays attention, but they do not monitor directly. However, literally anybody who is watching and feels a show is not filling its mandate or obeying the law — that includes advocacy groups, parents, academia — can issue a challenge. And the FCC is compelled to respond … which is the equivalent of yes, the FCC is paying attention.”
Although DIC does consult with certain advocacy groups, London notes, “Not all advocacy groups are created equal.”
But all the good intentions and pro-social activism wouldn’t mean much if kids don’t like the show.
The biggest challenge is creating content that is both relevant and entertaining.
“Part of it is taking the right concept and part of it is executing it in the right way. You look in every kids show that’s successful, and it is not successful because of great drawings; it is successful because of great stories brought to life by great execution,” London says, pointing to “Carmen San Diego” as an example.
“It got ratings and received absolute acclaim from educators. In many ways I would offer that show as a template for many shows that came after it. Not just shows the DIC did but in the whole bag of edutainment. I really feel that we helped to find that bag and that, to this day, it continues to be a real forte of the company and something that we excel at.”