Character is everything in the Daytime Emmy Awards race for top kids’ television programming, whose toughest critics are barely old enough to work the remote control.
From such animated fare as “The Wonder Pets!” (Nick Jr.), to live-action skeins like PBS’ classic “Sesame Street,” this year’s nominees stand at the mercy of eligible voters as well as the droves of discerning pint-sized viewers for whom Mickey Mouse, Curious George and Clifford the Big Red Dog are more than just cartoons — they’re part of the family.
So how does a children’s TV series succeed at playing on two different levels — one aimed at kids, the other aimed at adults who can push them through to the top of the competition?
“One of the most important things any show has going for it is great characters,” offers Mark Seidenberg, producer and story editor for Disney Junior’s “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse,” currently in its fourth season. “We all grew up with Mickey and his friends, and having a warm feeling of nostalgia for them. The show captures a bit of everybody’s youth.”
“It’s about creating great characters that both kids and adults connect with emotionally,” adds Disney Junior original programming veep Joe D’Ambrosia. “As adults, we’re still grappling with the same issues as kids. Everybody has a little Goofy or a little Mickey in him from time to time.”
For Joey Mazzarino, “Sesame Street” head scribe and the Muppeteer behind popular puppet Murray Monster, strong character development is not only essential in establishing creative excellence in children’s programming but also in encouraging parent-child co-viewing, which works to forward each show’s educational curriculum.
“We can’t just write something that’s just for adults, but we also can’t write something that’s just for kids,” says multi-Emmy winner Mazzarino, up this year for writing in a children’s series. “The puppets give kids an easy entryway to understanding the show’s educational content.”
As influential as kids might be in elevating a children’s show to the heights of critical acclaim, pop culture also plays a huge role in what series snap up an Emmy award.
“People vote for what they are familiar with,” notes Brown Johnson, animation president of Nickelodeon and MTVN Kids and Family Group. “People who are parents think about what their kids watch. People who are not parents think about what they’ve heard of.”
Johnson points to outstanding children’s animated nominee “Penguins of Madagascar” — based on the blockbuster “Madagascar” film franchise — as a children’s vehicle that deftly transcends the boundaries of age.
“You have to live under a rock not to know about the ‘Madagascar’ movies,” she says. “In the TV version, we stay true stylistically to the movie, and it definitely works to attract both the older and younger audiences.”
Mazzarino cites “Street’s” G-rated “Mad Men” parody (the Muppets are very, very angry) as one example of how the long-running series, entering its 42nd season, hooks both toddler and adult audience members.
“Kids don’t have to know who Don Draper is to watch that skit,” says Mazarino. “And the parents are entertained so they want to watch it with their children, which hopefully leads to questions and conversations. This is how the kids get the most out of what we want to teach.”
But penning kid-appropriate content that also intrigues older viewers has the potential to create a slippery storyline slope.
“Writing for kids, you want to keep things inspirational and light,” says Vivien Mejia, staff writer on Disney’s “Imagination Movers.”
“But the nature of compelling storytelling is that the story has to take a turn for the worst, which for a child could mean losing his blankie. So we have to find a way to turn that ‘dark night of the soul moment’ into a three-dimensional story and keep it universally interesting in a way that’s not threatening or frightening for kids, which the show does really well. It’s like walking a tightrope.”
In the end, familiarity helps foster a comfort zone for kids of all ages. Series featuring characters with whom fans can identify marks the difference between one-season wonders and shows that consistently garner critical and commercial acclaim.
“It’s the universal appeal of these characters that explains their longevity,” says performer nominee Bill Farmer, the voice behind Goofy on “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.”
“Goofy has been around since 1932. He’s an optimist. He can fall off a mountain, but he brushes himself off and keeps on going with a happy grin on his face. That’s why people love him.”
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