Saturday mornings in the late ’70s and early ’80s my classmates and I stretched out on our living room floors, waiting for our cartoons to be interrupted by Schoolhouse Rock. ABC was squeezing into our weekends on-the-fly learning about immigration and bills becoming laws through three-minute animated lessons. It was a civics sandwich made between slices of Strawberry Shortcake and Stretch Armstrong.
Today, as a parent of young twins and media scholar, I find it appalling that while kids have endless media options, not one of the streaming giants has devised a way to squeeze bites of knowledge into the margins of their entertainment. Sure, educational programming like Sesame Street, The Magic School Bus, and now MythBusters Jr. are available, but seldom does anything civic-minded make its way to the more high-profile distribution services. Netflix, Apple TV+, Prime Video, Hulu, and the rest are neglecting the fact that we’re in the midst of a national crisis of misinformation and missing information. This year begins with the air-strike killing of Iran’s military leader, devastating bushfires, and impeachment, and one of the most contentious elections of our times looms in the near future. It’s time for the streaming market to consider how lucrative being both innovators and responsible stewards can be.
Kelly Kessler is an associate professor of media and cinema studies at DePaul University and is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project. All the while, she’s doing her best to make her twins into good humans.
Kids clamor for information across platforms: YouTube informational videos, podcasts, documentaries, and beyond. Some of the most popular videos uploaded by YouTube megahit Ryan’s World (then Ryan’s Toy Review) were of science experiments conducted by then 3-year-old Ryan. Those at the helm know that kids are looking for knowledge. After garnering more than a dozen Emmy nominations for its animated educational StoryBots series and specials, Netflix deviated from its MO and purchased the StoryBots brand, with plans of expanding its animated Storybots offerings. Only twice before had the streaming giant purchased an entire media company. The company’s own announcement of the deal signaled its intentions: “The acquisition is a sign of Netflix’s commitment to bring educational content to its growing member base of kids and families around the world.” Apple TV+ recently kicked off its streaming battle by diving into the kids edutainment pool with the critical thinking/precoding series Helpsters. And when Disney+ launched in November, it unveiled National Geographic’s extensive documentary collection alongside the media giant’s vault of animated megahits.
The creators and distributors driving content know they don’t have to think far beyond the bottom dollar to cater to the intellectual and ethical futures of the next generation. They just need to deliver with the kind of panache that makes kids stay tuned for bites of news cropping up between binged episodes of Unikitty or Teen Titans Go!
Over the years, outlets like Channel 1 News and apps, websites, or podcasts like KidNuZ have brought news and history to the kid market, but their distribution plans have made them unlikely to blend into kids’ everyday lives. Channel 1 specifically targeted schools until the channel’s demise in 2018. KidNuZ became obscured in a sea of digital offerings. The industry needs to devise a new approach to meet kids, a lot of kids, at least half way.
As Disney+, HBO Max, Apple TV+, and other new competitors flood the streaming market, someone needs to set themselves apart. Kids’ content is one of the major factors driving the streaming wars. Some 60 percent of Netflix’s subscribers regularly watch kids’ shows, and HBO Max can clearly see the writing on the wall as it stuffs 50 years of Sesame Street into its offerings. If these companies want our cash and kids’ rapt attention, parents need to demand they do more.
Today’s kids are tomorrow’s voters. We’re dangling off the edge of another national election fueled by “alternative facts” and willy-nilly accusations of “fake news.” A 2019 Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation poll found that only 27 percent of Americans under 45 could demonstrate even a basic knowledge of US history when asked questions pulled from the US citizenship test. Notably, only 15 percent could identify when the founders wrote the Constitution, a date Schoolhouse Rock taught kids to sing in 1975: “In 1787 I’m told our founding fathers did agree to write a list of principles for keeping people free.” Only an informed electorate can help right what has gone horridly awry.
Content distributors should be thinking long and hard about how they’re preparing today’s pint-size consumers to be responsible citizens of the 21st century. In my research, I look at how delivery systems and marketing impact who sees what and when. In the 1970s, ABC’s educational content came looking for us. Disney+ spent a whopping $24.9 million in television ads alone in the final one-month push up to the new service’s launch. These services know the economic stakes are high.
While I find myself kicking my twins out of the room to prevent them from hearing presidential candidates talk about penis size or seeing graphic images of children in cages, they do need to know what’s going on around them, but as ABC did with Schoolhouse Rock, they need to be captured on their own terms.
Some will argue that kids are too innocent, news is inherently too biased, or it’s just not the job of entertainment companies to educate kids. David Buckingham, author of The Making of Citizens: Young People, News and Politics, notes that traditional news fails to hold the attention of kids and that approaching the concept of politics more broadly heightens the chance for children’s future political action. The time for kids to start becoming informed citizens is now, and the digital media giants are in a unique position to present politics broadly and creatively and encourage civic participation and cultural knowledge in today’s youth.
Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube: Take advantage of your algorithms. Blend news for children into your content. You need to capture kids’ imaginations, prepare them to engage in civil discourse, and help them become citizens of the world by targeting them, their age-ranges, and their preferred formats and platforms.
These platforms may live outside of the reach of the Children’s Television Act (which required that broadcast licensees air at least three weekly hours of educational/informative youth-targeted content), but their responsibilities lie beyond their investors, and they need to have the courage and integrity to take the reins of a youth-news movement. In 1961, FCC chair Newton Minow told broadcasters that “if parents, teachers, and ministers conducted their responsibilities by following the ratings, children would have a steady diet of ice cream, school holidays, and no Sunday school.” He then asked those broadcasters, “What about your responsibilities?” The delivery systems have changed, but the question hasn’t.
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