The kids TV industry is a huge wart-removal machine

David Blumenstein
Jan 24, 2019 · 6 min read

I have a child who watches TV shows on a tablet (ABC iView, usually). Her mother has done a great job of filtering these shows so the really awful ones don’t appear, but the other day a crap one snuck through, and I knew it immediately from the vacuous dialogue coming out of the kitchen.

“QUICK JASON THE PEEPERS ARE GETTING AWAY, MOM IS GONNA FREAK”

I’m a bit sensitive to that stuff because I worked on shows like this. These shows are written by a very small “professional class” of TV writers.¹

A lot of these writers get their ideas from other TV shows and movies, and you can really tell. It’s particularly bad when it comes to kids’ shows. You can pretty much transplant the plots, jokes and character types from one show to another and there’s no difference.

“OH NO DR. HORGEPORGER’S SHRINKING MACHINE WAS TURNED ON WE’RE SHRINKINGGGGGGGG”

I suspect it’s a mix of:

  • TV executives who might not interfere in “real” TV drama but feel empowered to do so with kids shows because they have a brat of their own and are therefore experts.
  • Kids shows are less important than adult TV, so nobody tries as hard.
  • There’s not much money in it for the writer.
  • Most writers think they’re pretty clever and actually aren’t.

It’s disappointing to see yet another show with a stupid dad and a heroic son, or a cast full of girls with one personality trait each (and all with the same facial features).

Girls and women are usually portrayed as smarter than boys and men, but with the catch that they’re bossy and persnickety.²

“IT’S ‘GO TIME’, SNIGGLEFLYERS!” “ARE YOU CRAZY, CAPTAIN SNOBO? IT’S TOO DANGEROUS!”

Even in good shows you can see the telltale smears of handling by professional writers. The new “Hilda” show on Netflix is great because it has great source material — but there are subtle changes between the books and the show. I’m guessing a professional thought they were important for “consistency” or “character conflict” reasons, but they make the characters and show a tiny bit more generic.³

“BUT… I’M A HUMAN! YOU CAN’T EXPECT ME TO GO TO… GORILLA PIZZA SCHOOL!”

So what?

Does it matter if a lot of kids’ shows are crappy? There are good ones.⁴

I’m oversensitive because I’ve been involved in this industry, and I think the production of bad-to-average children’s programming could be more immoral than working in industries like gambling, defence and finance (which I’ve also done on occasion).

That sounds overwrought, but adults can (sometimes) make choices not to use immoral products. Kids have no protection against lousy entertainment.

“THE MOONDANGLER’S GONNA SQUIDDERATE OCEANTOWN!” “WAIT… GROBIE’S PROPELLERBROOM! IT’S OUR ONLY CHANCE!”

Does lousy entertainment actually harm kids? Possibly not (but hang out with a child who watches nothing but Gorilla Pizza School and you may want to harm them).

I think being exposed to the same six stories and the same fourteen jokes over and over in early life probably contributes to a lack of imagination in adults.

Kids should have the chance to get used to a range of narrative “shapes”.

Kids probably need to be able to deal with longer stories, or ones that aren’t tied up neatly after 22 minutes. And stories from other cultures — they have different morals/ethics/goals at play.

“THOSE GIRLS ARE SO MEAN, I WISH I COULD TEACH THEM A LESSON!” “WHY NOT USE YOUR MAGIC TV REMOTE, FLARISSA?”

Keeping the warts in

I’m writing a kids’ book at the moment, and it’s my first time dealing with a publisher.

It’s fantastic to have editors making suggestions and helping with the story (and they really are), but I can see how an author might feel obliged to accept every piece of advice they’re given, and turn their personal, quirky story into something “appropriate for the market”, or “boy-friendly, girl-inclusive”⁵.

Again: I’m happy to have this advice! I just think it’s very difficult to keep the warty, organic bits in a story produced for commercial consumption.

And not every editor would be as passionate/skilled as the ones I’m dealing with. Hard as it is to believe, someone does write the stories for Grandpa In My Pocket, and someone else approves them and thinks they’re just great.⁶

“YOU NEVER NEEDED THE GREAT GOLDEN FLAME BOOTS, KONNOR!” “I KNOW THAT NOW TWILLIGUS! THE POWER WAS INSIDE _ME_ THE WHOLE TIME”

There’s a reason people say that there are “only seven basic stories in the world” (or six. Or three. Or etc). That’s kinda true, but not important.

It’s craft and imagination that lets you tell what, much of the time, are archetypal stories, but with some surprise and entertainment value.

I heard my wife and child laughing at a show the other day. At the same time! What kind of show is actually funny to both a 3 year old and her mother?

It’s Bluey, and it’s made in Australia! Well written, with identifiable characters and unique stories! Loads of imagination, genuinely funny for all ages and rooted in reality (every episode I watch reminds me pleasantly of stuff that happens in our family life).

Australian grandparents: your grandchild wants to watch Bluey (left), not Bluey (right).

So it can be done! You can make children’s entertainment for a mass audience, with all the little quirks and specificity found in real life. We should all go to Queensland to ask them how they manage it.⁷


¹ Take with a grain of salt, but: a comedy friend tells me there are about 20 people writing most of the TV in Australia, and that he can tell, watching a show, when “Debbie” has written the setup for a joke but it’s had its punchline rewritten by “Mike”.

² Sometimes they can load up the token girl with a token ethnicity too. Double points.

³ For e.g.: in the book, Hilda is grumpy about a little wooden forest-creature who hangs out in their house without being invited, while her mother is fine with it (“He’s not hurting anyone”). For some reason, in the show it’s the mother who’s not happy about him being there. This flattens both their personalities out a bit, making the mother more a typical parental scold, and Hilda more the tolerant hero-child.

⁴ My daughter has enjoyed Hey Duggee!, Peppa Pig, Octonauts and Go-Jetters lately. Pocoyo is still the best, though, because I said so.

⁵ I didn’t make this term up.

⁶ Watch several episodes and then tell me what you think.

⁷ UPDATE JAN 25: Bluey’s editor informs me that the show is written almost entirely by the creator and producer, together. Not a surprise!

David Blumenstein

Written by

David works in service/strategic design: experienceillustration.com. He draws comics at Squishface Studio: squishfacestudio.com. Other stuff: nakedfella.com.

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