Realscreen West ’19: Making kindler, gentler TV without going soft

By Frederick Blichert June 6, 2019

Positive storytelling has been on the rise in the unscripted space for some time now, but it can still be a tough nut to crack.

The “Trendwatch: Kinder, Gentler TV” panel at Realscreen West yesterday (June 5) took this question on, chipping away at why some uplifting series work and others don’t.

Joseph Livecchi, CEO of Noble Savages, served as moderator, with panelists Rob Bagshaw, EVP of unscripted content at Nickelodeon; Nina Etspueler, group creative director at Red Arrow Studios; Karen Miller, SVP of content at Universal Kids, NBCUniversal; Arthur Smith, co-founder and CEO at A. Smith & Co. Productions.

One important question in all of this is “Why?” Why are audiences looking for kinder, gentler content?

The short answer, largely agreed upon across the panel, is that “cruelty and darkness are all around us in 2019,” said Smith.

“There’s so much negativity out there in the world that we’re faced with every day,” he continued. “[Positive, uplifting storytelling] always worked, but I think now, more than ever, people are also looking for things that they can watch together.”

That focus on co-viewing isn’t incidental. Responding to darkness with light includes doing so in a safe environment with people you love.

The overarching question put to the panel was fairly neatly split into those overlapping categories: co-viewing, family-friendly programming and positive messaging.

They’re linked, though they do have subtle differences.

Something like Nickelodeon’s Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? pits adults against kids and offers an easy in for multiple age groups. American Ninja Warrior and American Ninja Warrior Junior from A. Smith & Co. Productions similarly offer different points of view, and families can watch either or both series together — and they do. The original show isn’t for adults, and Junior isn’t for kids. They’re different sides of the same coin. The challenges are the same, so neither feels exclusive to one demo.

That does open the door to certain risks though. If you try to please everyone, you can end up pleasing no one. And similarly, if you try too hard to keep things family-friendly, you can risk losing your edge.

“One of the worries that we might have as producers is family programming can be seen as safe programming,” said Bagsaw. “The problem with family programming sometimes is that we get pitched a lot of stuff that is really just soft.”

One way to fix that is to focus on kindness rather than sanding down the edges of a program.

“With America’s Most Musical Family, we’re going to have judges. They’re not going to be the Simon Cowells or the Gordon Ramsays or those kinds of characters,” said Bagsaw of one of Nickelodeon’s upcoming formats. That doesn’t mean the series will be devoid of competition, but it does mean more constructive criticism and support as opposed to unfettered critique and snark.

Another great example of a series that straddles this line is Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds, from CPL Productions, a division of Red Arrow Studios. The series tackles the questions surrounding an aging population, including illness and death, but it also adds a bit of hope in the form of creating relationships between four-year-olds and the elderly.

Physical illness, depression and mortality are probably not the first things to come to mind when thinking of “kinder, gentler TV,” and yet by tackling these real-world issues, Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds avoids the “soft” label while holding on to an overall positive message and genuine emotional catharsis through human bonding onscreen.

“The topic seems a little heavy at the beginning, but it is an important topic to talk about,” said Etspueler, of the show.

Heaviness is fine. Series can be political. They can be harsh. But they can also explore overcoming adversity, or working as a team, or connecting on a human level.

If ratings are any indication, people are increasingly demanding that lighter touch, and format producers are well-positioned to deliver it.

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