Cable networks targeting young viewers are finding ways to connect with their audiences beyond just programming — and the results can be good for kids' health and even the planet's well-being.
From promoting physical fitness to encouraging a green lifestyle, programmers are investing time and money to help their viewers feel and live better. While such initiatives can be costly and difficult to quantify in terms of return on investment, the networks see them as a win-win proposition: good for their viewers and, ultimately, good business.
“Promoting pro-social and educational initiatives is part of our DNA and our legacy,” said Marva Smalls, Nickelodeon's executive vice president of public affairs. “We connect with kids to help them make constructive decisions and change. That helps our business and cements our relationship with them.”
One of the ways that Nickelodeon is helping kids make constructive decisions is when it comes to their health. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of kids considered overweight has more than tripled since 1980, and part of the problem is a lack of physical activity.
To encourage outdoor activity among its young viewers, Nickelodeon has for the past five years gone dark for three hours one day a year. During that time, a notice on the TV screen instructs kids to switch off the TV and go out to play. It may seem counterproductive for a network that wants to attract — not deter — eyeballs, but Nickelodeon executives are convinced it's worth it.
“We want to emphasize the notion that we want to be part of the healthiest generation, not the unhealthiest,” said Smalls.
Nickelodeon is not alone in responding to the problem. Several networks have begun similar initiatives.
Qubo, a 24-hour kids network aimed at 4- to 8-year-olds, has also created programs designed to encourage “play.” Public service announcements using Olympic athletes and various cartoon characters of the network's slate of programming promote exercise and healthy eating habits.
The company participated in the National Cable & Telecommunications' Cable Cares effort to build a playground in New Orleans earlier this year and found it so rewarding that it decided to extend its relationship with KaBOOM!, a national non-profit organization that has created the “Playful City USA” program, according to Qubo president Rick Rodriguez.
“We are now the official media sponsor of Playful City USA,” Rodriguez said.
The initiative is a national recognition program honoring cities across the nation committed to taking action for play. The program envisions a great place to play within walking distance of every child in America, offers cities resources to assess, build and modernize playgrounds and mobilize residents to make sure their communities have places for kids to play.
Qubo will promote the effort on-air and on the Web and provide guidelines to help promote play in communities, Rodriguez said. The program launched last year, selected 31 cities to be designated as playful cities. The recipients of this year's honor will be announced in September.
PBS Kids Sprout, which targets 2- to 5-year-olds, also promotes healthy living and play through a series of public service announcements. But because the audience is so young, a significant amount of the network's messages are aimed at parents.
“We want to promote the power of play. Exercise can have a negative connotation,” said Sprout president Sandy Wax. “Play is different. But often, parents don't know how to facilitate that. Play is kids' work. They need to play so they can figure out how to navigate the world. Our role is to help parents prepare their kids for that.”
A year after launching its “Rescue Recess” initiative, Cartoon Network has retooled the program to better fit its needs, as well as those of its viewers. Cartoon created the initiative in 2006 after recognizing that budget cuts and increased academic pressure had caused nearly 40% of U.S. schools to reduce or even eliminate recess from their daily schedules. The reduction in physical activity during the school day had been linked to rising childhood obesity, according to Cartoon manager of community relations Vanessa Foster.
The company added the initiative to its “Get Animated” effort, which encourages kids to be healthy, active and involved.
The first year of Rescue Recess included a grassroots effort to encourage kids to write to their school boards and state legislatures and ask that recess be mandated as part of the curriculum. The second year challenged schools to find volunteers to oversee kids on the playground during recess.
Network executives weren't exactly disappointed in the program this year but they acknowledged that they didn't get the number of volunteers they had hoped for. “Some schools excelled but some struggled,” Foster said. “This year's program was a good foundation for moving forward, but we knew we didn't want to be a lobbying organization or policy maker.”
So Cartoon has rejiggered its program, now called “The Red Rubber Ball.” Cartoon will promote the initiative during National Recess Week to be held in March 2009. The network aims to distribute red rubber balls to every elementary school in the U.S. The goal: to empower kids to figure out how to have fun and get active. Kids will be filmed doing fun things with the balls and some of the most creative and talented will be shown on air.
“We wanted to show that getting active is a cool thing to do,” said Lee Blevins, Cartoon director of community relations.
Cartoon is also reinvigorating its “Get Animated Tour.” The tour will go to 50 markets around the country and Cartoon will partner with local cable affiliates. It will feature seven stations touching on topics including nutrition, games and World Cup Soccer, among others and is designed to help educate kids and parents on the benefits of a healthy and active lifestyle.
Last year, Nickelodeon married a health component with its “Let's Just Play” program. Nick joined the Alliance for Healthier Generation to create the Let's Just Play “Go Healthy Challenge.” The initiative included a weekly series that followed the transformation of two kids as they learned how to eat right, exercise and change their lifestyles. Online components gave additional information on the kids' progress and tips on how other kids could get healthy. Nickelodeon also gave $2 million in grants to boys and girls clubs, little league teams and others to help make it easier for kids to get out and play and be active.
Encouraging kids to be healthy and active is only part of Nickelodeon's pro-social and educational efforts. It also promotes social responsibility and political activism with its “Big Green Help” and “Kids Pick the President” initiatives.
The company is running politically focused content on its networks and Web sites through Oct. 19, including coverage of both political party conventions by junior reporters. On Oct. 12, Nickelodeon's Kids Pick the President vote will be held.
Smalls said that the kids who have participated in this program have correctly chosen the president for the past four-out-of-five elections.
Another hot issue for kids networks is “being green,” with Nickelodeon, The Weather Channel and Discovery Communications all launching extensive educational and proactive programs focused on conservation and the environment.
Nick retooled its Big Help social responsibility initiative — launched in 1993 — to include an environmental bent this year. The centerpiece of the newly dubbed The Big Green Help initiative is the planned Dec. 14 launch of a global multiplayer online green game for kids, which will provide actionable, measurable steps and information to directly link them to ways that they can positively contribute to helping the environment, on an individual and a community level, Smalls said.
“We wanted to encourage kids to volunteer in their communities. But kids associated community service with punishment. So we had to change their perception,” Smalls said. “We know that kids can truly be agents of change on important issues, and the environment is an issue that affects 100% of our audience.”
In April, Nick.com launched a new Web site, thebiggreenhelp.com, to help educate kids on all things green. The site features a personalized questionnaire to track kids' individual and family progress during the campaign; a glossary of environmentally focused terms; daily green tips for kids; a video upload tool that kids can use to share what they are doing to protect the planet; and green games to teach kids earth-friendly activities.
CHANGING THE WORLD
Discovery, which has a long history working with teachers and students, teamed up with The Siemens Foundation and the National Science Teachers Association earlier this summer to create the “Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge.” The program, which begins in September, is designed to educate, empower and engage students, teachers and communities in environmental sustainability.
The initiative will be rolled out over the next three years. to get underway but Discovery divisional marketing manager Lori McFarling maintains it's the only K-12 sustainability education initiative aligned to state education standards and tailored to match students' growing comprehension abilities throughout their school-aged years.
“We'll provide teachers with the resources, tools and curriculum to educate their students about the environment. The Challenge will give students the incentive to actually take what they learn and turn it into action,” McFarling said. “Being Green and helping improve the environment goes beyond science. It's a cross-curriculum issue so we'll address this in ways that every teacher can benefit from.”
Starting this fall, The Challenge will target middle school students because research has shown that this is a pivotal age for getting kids committed to math and science. Students will band together to come up with proposals they can undertake to make a difference in the environment.
In following years, kindergartners through second-graders will learn how they can make a difference in simple, everyday ways such as turning off lights and using fewer paper towels to dry their hands. Third- through fifth-graders will focus on what their school can do to improve the environment, such as recycling programs or collectively reducing the energy their school consumes. High school students will connect with real world scientists, who will demonstrate how to take what they've learned in the classroom and turn it into real action items and initiatives.
For the last decade, Discovery has also sponsored a Young Scientist Challenge for middle school children. This year, Discovery teamed with 3M Corp. to help sponsor the science competition, according to McFarling.
“3M felt this program was right up their alley,” McFarling said. “We used to work strictly with school science fairs. But now we're doing it in almost every school in the nation. Over 500,000 students have participated in this event over the last 10 years. The numbers this year will skyrocket.”
Meanwhile, The Weather Channel is expanding its own educational initiatives geared at environmental awareness. It will hold its second three-day Forecast Earth Summit this December, according to Weather Channel vice president of climate strategic marketing Meredith Smith. Students across the country wrote 200-word essays on what they are doing to make the planet a greener place to live. Last year's winners — 22 high school students from 14 states — gathered in Washington, D.C., and heard from Weather Channel climate expert Heidi Cullen and actress Hayden Panettiere (NBC's Heroes).
Under the supervision of Marcus Eriksen, host of Commando Weather, the students worked together to create a boat made entirely of recycled materials including more than 200 two-liter bottles, recycled wood products such as chairs and broomsticks, and braided plastic bags. The students also created individual public service announcements that ran on The Weather Channel, weather.com and in selected local television markets.
Weather has also teamed with the National Environmental Education Foundation to create the “Classroom Earth” program. The primary goal of the program is to increase the environmental literacy of high school students and to provide models for including environmental education into all high school classrooms through two interactive Web sites: one exclusively for students, the other for teachers. The Classroom Earth program with NEEF has awarded 25 grants to teachers around the country who want to incorporate the environment into his or her lesson plans.
“NEEF wanted to infuse environmental learning throughout every classroom, not just science,” Smith said. “NEEF also knew that people learn best when hands-on learning tools are used. These grants will help them achieve those goals.”
Weather and NEEF launched a teacher-to-teacher Web site in August so teachers could use best practices and get tips on how to include environmental literacy into their classroom lessons and discussions. Similarly, student eco-grants will be announced this fall and a student-to-student Web site will launch as well, Smith said.
Weather is also focusing its educational and pro-social sights on younger kids. Last fall, Weather launched weatherchannelkids.com — aimed at kids ages 5 through 13 — as a fun space for kids to learn about the weather, said vice president of licensing Shari Price.
Before launching, however, Weather executives consulted a group of fourth graders from a local elementary school near the network's Atlanta headquarters on what the site should include and the students continue to serve as periodic consultants and are not shy about telling Weather executives what they want, Price said. The Web site launched in August a slew of new features to help kids explore their interests related to the environment, taking care of their pets, and meteorology as a career.
“Kids are savvy,” Price said. “We have to have platforms we can use to connect with them. These initiatives and Web sites are effective ways to do that. And you have to listen to what they want. We had a concept for the Web site aimed at girls. We thought that they'd like to know how the weather affected fashion. But they didn't click with that. They liked the science of weather. And they liked the idea of being able to talk to other kids around the world about weather and the environment. So we are launching a chat section later this fall to address that desire.”