PBS scores big with Daytime Emmy awards

Just in case you missed it, the 35th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards were given our last Friday, and many of our favorite kid’ shows were recognized for excellence. PBS topped the list with 10 awards; for example, Sesame Street won “Outstanding Pre-School Children’s Series,” bringing that show’s total Emmy count to seventy gagillion*.

Other awards of note to those of us with ankle-biters in the house:

  • Curious George won “Outstanding Children’s Animated Program”
  • The Backyardigans won “Outstanding Special Class Animated Program”
  • Wonder Pets won “Outstanding Achievement in Music Direction and Composition”
  • Both Greatest Inventions with Bill Nye and Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild won for “Outstanding Children’s Series”
  • Between the Lions won “Outstanding Writing in a Children’s Series”
  • “Outstanding Writing in Animation” went to both Peep and the Big Wide World and WordGirl

There are other awards, of course, but those are the ones of greatest interest to me. Of course, if you’re deeply moved by the Emmy The Price Is Right won for make-up, well then, to each his own. (My reaction, upon reading that: “Wait… The Price Is Right is still on the air? Isn’t Bob Barker 104?”)

Anyway, it was a pretty exciting day for some great children’s shows. Congratulations to all the winners!

* A “gajillion” is not really a number. Sesame Street has, in fact, won 117 Daytime Emmys, which is very close to seventy gajillion.

Does animation transcend cultural differences? Yes. No.

Yesterday I happened to catch the mention over at Toon Zone of this article in the Wall Street Journal about the changes being made to popular American animation before shipping it overseas.

Big round heads and tiny bodies make the Powerpuff Girls instantly identifiable to their fans in America. The preteen karate superheroes star in one of the top-rated shows on cable’s Cartoon Network.

Last year, though, the “Powerpuff Girls” showed up in Japan with a whole new look. On “Demashita! Powerpuff Girls Z,” the heroines have grown up, sprouted long legs and wear skirts well above their knees. In the original American storyline, the girls were created of sugar, spice and everything nice; their Japanese counterparts are normal girls who acquire superpowers from a chemical reaction initiated by a rice cake.

Once, American entertainment companies exporting characters just dubbed them into other languages. But in recent years, Asia has become the testing ground for character reinvention, a process called “transcreation.”

That Powerpuff Girls is the flagship example of transcreation surprises me, because I’ve always sort of found the animation style very anime-ish and I’m not an anime fan. In fact, I’ve been known to yell at the television “How can you possible fight crime when you don’t even have fingers?! And when your head is bigger than your body??” (I am a joy to watch TV with, let me tell you.) Further down in the article I get more information, though:

When Craig McCracken created the Powerpuff Girls show, he deliberately gave it what he thought was a “Japanese look.” But when the show first aired in Japan in 2001, it failed to attract a wide audience. So Cartoon Network decided to reinvent the characters to boost its appeal in Japan, an idea Mr. McCracken welcomed.

In their transcreation, Blossom, Buttercup and Bubbles got Japanese names and the lives of typical Japanese junior-high-school students. Since Japanese kids like to dress up like their favorite characters, the girls got more realistic outfits, with miniskirts, matching vests and hip-hugging belts.

While I understand the premise, I suppose, I am disturbed by the fact that part of this reinvention is making the girls older. My understanding of the American version (granted, we don’t watch it all that often) is that the girls are much younger than junior high. Why the age change? Is that cultural, or does making them older allow for racier themes and clothing, and appeal to a, er, wider audience? To whit:

“In Japan, girly love themes are a must,” Ms. Seki [a producer at Toei who helped create the show] says. When “Demashita! Powerpuff Girls Z” was launched in Japan a year ago, the executives at Cartoon Network soon realized that the revamped plots and skimpier outfits not only attracted young girls, they also broadened the audience to include animation-obsessed adult men known in Japan as otaku, or geeks, who were also fans of the original.

That last bit sort of creeps me out, quite frankly. Look, I don’t have a problem with grown men who are obsessed with cartoons, and don’t even particularly have an issue with grown men who are obsessed with sexy cartoons, but if it’s all the same to everyone involved, could we not market the same shows to my children as to those guys? Please? Sheesh.

Do go read the entire article; although the discussion of Powerpuff Girls is perhaps the most compelling/controversial, changes made to Big Bird of Sesame Street are also touched on, as well a brief discussion of how Spongebob Squarepants managed to thrive in Japan as is (and against expectations).

So that’s the scoop on transcreation. Learn something new every day, I guess.

War vets on Sesame Street

For years now generations of children and parents have relied upon Sesame Street to talk about, well, everything. You could count on Grover to understand what it feels like to be embarrassed. You knew that Ernie would be able to capture that sort of reckless joy that maybe some of us don’t feel often enough. Even Elmo—bless his furry, annoying little soul—has guided many a preschooler in learning about words and feelings and how to talk about yourself in the third person.

So it’s not exactly surprising, but it is a momentous step, all the same: The next big Sesame Workshop project is geared towards military families, and is all about injured war veterans returning home:

More than a million children have parents who are in the military and have been deployed in the last six years. And roughly 18,000 military personnel in Iraq or Afghanistan have been wounded or injured seriously enough to be evacuated.

In the new production, Rosita, a fluffy blue mop-headed muppet, is upset because her father has returned home in a wheelchair. Rosita angrily refers to the wheelchair as “that thing” and reminisces about the days when she could dance to salsa music and kick a ball with her dad.

With encouragement from Elmo, Rosita musters the nerve to talk with her parents about how she is feeling.

“Sometimes I feel a little sad, because things are so different now,” Rosita says during a family outing to the park. “I wish your legs were OK, Papi, and I wish you didn’t have to go to the doctor so much. And I just wish things could go back to the way they were!”

Rosita’s father tells her that although he may have changed, his love for her hasn’t. And he persuades her to hop on the back of his wheelchair so the two can try a new kind of dancing.

I wish there wasn’t a need for such a DVD. Unfortunately, there is, and to have children’s beloved characters once again facing situations they themselves might be grappling with at home is bound to be a comfort to children and families facing the reality of wartime military life.

The project is already drawing praise:

Psychiatry professor Stephen Cozza of Uniformed Services University, which trains military doctors, said a parent’s injury or emotional problem is often “a big white elephant in the room that nobody’s talking about.”

[...]

On the other hand, there can be a tendency to give young children more information than they can handle, said Cozza, who also is an adviser to Sesame Street.

He said the new DVD seeks to strike the right balance by showing families how to talk openly about the changed situation they face without frightening young viewers.

This is the sort of thing that makes Sesame Street the legend it so richly deserves to be. Kudos to everyone involved for tackling such a sensitive issue. I feel all warm and fuzzy, now, heading into the weekend. Have a great one, everyone!

Could you pick a top 100?

I love these sorts of things: TIME Magazine’s James Poniewozik has compiled a list of the 100 Best TV Shows of All-TIME. It’s possible that I love these things partially because of their subjective nature and the brouhaha they tend to spawn in their wakes, but also because I’m always fascinated to see what sorts of cultural phenomena we can all point to and agree that “Yes, that has to be on the list.”

Leaving no base uncovered, Poniewozik even includes an explanation of how he made his choices, which is pretty interesting in and of itself. The bottom line, of course, is that it’s his list and his rules, but the guiding principles and his overall humor seem sound enough to me:

Those are my rules; I took them seriously, and broke most of them at least once. Ultimately, I also had to realize that this isn’t the Periodic Table of the Elements; it is a freaking top-100 list. It is hopefully well-informed, but it is not inherently more correct than your top-100 list. Lists are meaningless: they sell magazines and give you something to talk about at the bar. Lists are incredibly important: they are how we define what matters to us, what we want entertainment and art to do, what we expect of our culture.

Most of all, lists are about having fun and picking fights. If you have read my list and think I am a moron, that’s all the thanks I need.

(At the very least, he sounds like someone that’d be plenty fun to watch TV with, no?)

Anyway. The most notable surprise to me is the relative paucity of children’s shows on the list; the kiddie favorites included number only four: A Charlie Brown Christmas, Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Rocky and His Friends, and Sesame Street. (I am counting only these four as truly kid-appropriate shows. Things like The Simpsons and Beavis and Butt-Head I am considering older fare.)

If it was my list (yeah, yeah—I know, it’s his list) and I could include what I consider other kid notables, I’d have to have The Muppet Show on there at a bare minimum. There are others I’d want to include that maybe I couldn’t quite make an airtight argument for (like Super Friends), but c’mon, the Muppets are a no-brainer.

Hit me with your thoughts; what other kiddie classics are missing?

Joel Stein takes aim at Elmo

Is it possible to dislike Elmo? Apparently it is, yes, and not just because he’s annoying and speaks in the third person. When my children were young enough to enjoy Sesame Street, they were drawn to Elmo like moths to a flame, and my friends and I sat around lamenting the “good old days” when Bert and Ernie got more screen time and Super Grover was always on hand to create calamity. Sure, today’s Sesame Street is reminiscent of what we grew up watching, but it’s different. For a variety of reasons.

Well, Joel Stein wants to place the blame squarely on Elmo’s fuzzy little shoulders, and I can’t help but laugh, even as I not-so-secretly agree:

Yes, I know that children love Elmo. But children are idiots. That’s why we don’t let them have jobs. Could you imagine an office full of children? They’d spend all day telling dumb jokes and talking about their poop. It would be like it was before women entered the workplace.

[...]

When I watched “Sesame Street” in the ’70s, the human cast and the Muppets were quirky adults who didn’t talk down to me with baby voices. Now the human cast gets almost no airtime, and the show is dominated by Elmo, Baby Bear and, now, Abby Cadabby ââ¬â preschoolers enamored by their own adorable stupidity.

The lesson they teach ââ¬â in opposition to Oscar, Big Bird, Grover or Bert ââ¬â is that bland neediness gets you stuff much more easily than character. We are breeding a nation of Anna Nicole Smiths.

Is Stein taking it to an extreme? Probably. I mean, I hope so. For the sake of the children.

But I have a confession to make: Even when my kids were in the target age group for Sesame Street, as the keeper of the remote control I often announced that Sesame Street was unavailable, so how about Between the Lions, instead? I’m a sucker for the Chicken Jane segments. That’s what Sesame Street used to be like, before Elmo arrived on the scene.

Read the whole piece if you need a little sanctioned Elmo-bashing. Stein’s ideas for a solution are particularly amusing.

In the meantime, I think we’ll stick to characters who actually learn things. And who don’t make me want to stick forks into my eardrums.