If you thought TV was for adults, think again. According to the Television Audience Measurement (TAM), which monitors TV viewing patterns in India, children between 4 and 14 years form the largest segment of viewers at 23 per cent. This age group is followed closely by 15- to 25-year-olds (22 per cent) and 25-to 35-year-olds (20 per cent). And just what are these kids watching? Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Star Plus - in that order - share the top three slots. Cartoon channels attract the highest number of kids, followed by infotainment and music channels.
The worrisome factor however, is that children are viewing a lot of what is not meant for them, especially the sitcoms and soaps. "Though most of the programming is not meant for children, many programs have children as their viewers. The option of accepting what is telecast - or developing something better - is what parents and TV producers need to exercise," says Barbara Kolucki, a former scriptwriter for 'Sesame Street', a popular American TV show for children. She was in India recently to train TV producers on writing better scripts for children's shows.
An analysis of the genre of TV channels done by TAM shows that 30 per cent of all programming is sports-based, followed by news at 20 per cent and English movies, 17 per cent. Programs for children, and those on music and infotainment have only an 11 per cent share each. That programs for children are relatively few, even though they form the largest group of viewers, is telling - an indication of the lack of importance accorded to television programs designed or produced for children in India.
UNICEF and Doordarshan conducted a six-day workshop for TV producers recently in Pune. They were trained to make a 180-degree turnaround in the way TV shows for children are made: to write scripts that do not include violence or stereotypical behavior, are not moralistic or preachy, and those which shift from 'talking the talk' to 'walking the walk'.
According to Kolucki, the conventional thinking in programming has been to teach children the three Rs or give them powerful messages - referred to as `talking the talk'. TV shows need to move away to shows that have soft characters children can identify and feel comfortable with. The message ought to be one that tells and teaches each child that he or she is very special - that would be 'walking the walk'. A simple example would be placing a child in front of the camera and letting her talk, instead of preaching to the child.
"A children's show should always be from the perspective of what a child needs, not what the parents want their child to view, what the school wants the child to learn or even what the country and culture wants of a child. More often than not, children's shows tend to be boring. But kids need to be kids; and to teach them through a medium like television, you need to tap into what a child likes - adventure, play, curiosity - and they will lean into the TV," says Annie Evans. Evans writes scripts for 'Sesame Street' and for several other children's shows on Nickelodeon, Disney TV, Discovery Kids and a few other TV channels.
Around the world, TV shows for children are now concentrating on helping children learn to solve problems themselves with the adults on the show acting as guides. The stories are getting more and more child-relevant by addressing issues children face every day. "For an adult, facing a queue at the market may be a problem, but for children 'how do I tie my pyjama drawstrings?' or 'what if my friend is angry with me?' are questions they seek answers to," points out Evans.
Says Anurupa Roy, puppeteer and producer of the show, 'Khulja Sim Sim': "In India, we need to start evaluating existing programs for children and begin to use more creative concepts." Roy showed the workshop participants how entertaining and low-budget programs could be made with the use of puppets.
The producers who were trained at this workshop will now be looking at making programs that involve a qualitative increase in children's participation. "It has helped me to start thinking of how to coordinate content, scripting, words that children use and their actions, and to give the message in a subtle but magical way," says Raman Mann, an independent film producer.
UNICEF has been holding one such workshop every year to promote better programming for children. "The idea," says Kolucki, "is not to get western programs repeated in India, but to get good quality children's programs made, meant for an Indian audience."
If TV producers in India could tap into the joys of childhood and put the magic back in TV shows for children, they could have millions of children virtually eating out of their hands. And if the transformation occurs, millions of Indian adults too would watch, fascinated.