The Ingredients of Prosocial, "FCC Friendly" Animation

by Jennifer Kotler

During an episode of Pepper Ann, Pepper Ann learns to deal will her father's absence on Thanksgiving. © Disney. All Rights Reserved.

In the fall of 1997, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began requiring U.S. broadcast television stations to air at least three hours each week of educational television for children. Noncompliance with this requirement places stations at risk of delaying their license renewal; compliance makes them eligible for expedited renewal.

Educational television has been loosely defined, but the intent is for stations to air programs that are created with a main intention of meeting the educational and informative needs of children. Many assume that this category only includes programs that teach hard cold facts like numbers, vocabulary, science, history and the news. Many creators shy away from these types of programs for kids in middle childhood as they believe (probably correctly) that the last thing most children want to do when they come home from school is to continue to think. However, there is one type of show that generally can be very successful and appealing to children, one that many stations are using to fulfill this educational/informative requirement. These programs can be so clever that children do not even realize that they're being taught. This type of show is the prosocial program.

The term, "prosocial" generally refers to actions that society deems appropriate, decent and beneficial. Programs that contain prosocial content may teach actions that support interpersonal skills such as helping others, negotiation, cooperation, sharing and tolerance. Prosocial programs can also teach children how to feel good about themselves by teaching perseverance, honor, pride, and self-esteem. There are prosocial elements in many programs on television. In between the laughs, sitcoms often have many elements of prosocial behavior. Step By Step, Blossom, and Family Matters are good examples. Even superhero cartoons can teach children that it pays to be the "good guy." If there are elements of prosocial behavior in many programs, then what makes a show truly prosocial and FCC friendly?

Guidelines for Success
What makes a prosocial program truly educational is that the main goal of the program is to provide children with information about the social world that they live in, and to provide a safe arena in which to explore the contexts and consequences of their interactions with others. The program can give children the opportunity to learn how to handle difficult situations, and how to get along with others, but it can also teach them how to be true to themselves. During an episode of Pepper Ann, Pepper Ann learns to deal will her father's absence on Thanksgiving. On Fudge older brother Peter learns not to exclude his younger brother anymore. Hangtime episodes typically deal with problems facing teens like drugs, friendships, and dating.

In order to create a program that is prosocial, yet entertaining, applicable, understood and most importantly, watched, there are a few guidelines that producers can follow. These guidelines are based both on marketing techniques that work to gage children's attention and interest, as well as strategies to make sure children comprehend and learn from what they see. Successful programs that stimulate thought, as well as entertain audiences, tend to contain the following ingredients:

With its multi-cultural cast, C-Bear and Jamal is a good example of a prosocial program. © Film Roman.

Appropriate Levels of Humor
Humor is one of the main ingredients of successful children's programs. Humor not only initially gains attention, but it retains it there as well. It is important, though, that the humor not distract children from learning the main theme of the story. In other words, the show should be funny but not so funny that the humor interferes with the main message. For young children, the humor should be linked to, and paired with, the main message, rather than being presented before or afterwards. If the program is basically humorless and rather serious with a sprinkle of laughter throughout the program, young children will come away from the program remembering the funny lines and skits, while forgetting the main message. Although, children over seven years of age are often able to distinguish between what is central to the plot and what is more glitz and style, it helps to make the main message as clear and obvious as possible.

It is also important that the type of humor used is appropriate for the age group. Sarcasm can be great for older children and teenagers who understand it. Younger children are not as able to understand sarcasm and exaggeration and may be confused with presentations that contradict the main theme. Plays on familiar words, physical humor and silly sounds are more appropriate for younger audiences.

Action, No Violence
Children, and adults as well, are naturally attracted to movement and activity. Studies demonstrate that salient features such as scene and angle changes, loud noises, and vibrant colors tend to grab children's attention. Young audiences have shorter attention spans and programs such as Sesame Street that tailor segment length to meet young children's attention spans, will be more successful in maintaining the attention of young audiences. There is no conclusive data that supports the contention that rapidly paced programming on Sesame Street leads to hyperactivity. There is some evidence that cartoons containing large amounts of violence may lead to hyperactivity, but there is little evidence that fast-paced educational or prosocial television does so.

Because violence tends to have many qualities that hold attention, many believe that inclusion of some violence is necessary for successful ratings. Action need not be equated with violence. There can be many activities that do not include violence, such as going on an imaginary voyage, collecting clues to solve a mystery or looking all over the house for the lost cookie jar. Suspense and uncertainty can produce excitement without containing violence.

If a particular program is based on social relationships, then it should contain story lines to which children can relate. Children pay attention to plots that contain relevance to their lives. Even if the context of the story involves people or things with fantastic powers, such as talking animals and superheroes, many of the positive social skills that are presented should be ones that kids without special powers can imitate.

Although as children get older they are able to distinguish reality from fantasy, many shows can provide socially realistic problems that need addressing whether those addressing the issues are people, aardvarks, Rugrats or Muppets. Part of what children get out of these shows is an understanding of how things work in the real-world, especially for situations in which they have little real-world experience. If the program presents realistic problems, then it should provide real-world solutions and real-world outcomes. This might mean not treating serious situations lightly. Certain problems cannot be solved within a half-hour. Sometimes people just do not like other people. Sometimes life is just plain unfair. Provide realistic scenarios that might result from real-life encounters without becoming too scary, depressing or otherwise frightening.

Diversity, Not Stereotypes
Including characters of all different colors, cultures, beliefs, abilities and interests provides a number of characters with which children can identify. Disney's Recess contains children of all shapes and sizes. Muppet Babies represents all different types of creatures. Winnie The Pooh presents friendship across all kinds of animals. Whenever possible, stay clear from ethnic, racial, religious, gender and physical stereotypes. It's important to include characters that differ from each other, but try to avoid making the character with glasses the nerd, the girl a shallow person who only cares about clothes, and the bad guy the one who looks uglier than everyone else.

Disney's Recess contains children of all shapes and sizes. © Disney. All Rights Reserved.

The Mighty Central Theme
There is a way to get a message to children at their level without overacting, talking down to them, or sugar coating what they need to learn. However, it is important to get the point across. Some cartoons like C-Bear and Jamal and Doug do a very good job of this. They have one character speak to the audience as if they could hear his thoughts as he sizes up the situations in which he is involved. This is a good way to talk to the audience without being condescending.

Personalizing the message also signals to children that what this particular person is saying is important. If the same character in each episode is known as the wise one and is consistent in delivering important messages, children will learn to attend to what that character has to say. Young children may have difficulty knowing how to distinguish what is important from something that is unimportant. Pairing the central theme with some very salient auditory or visual feature that elicits children's attention, will often aid in the child's comprehension. For example, whenever Fat Albert said, "Hey, hey, hey!" something important was about to happen.

Caution: Side Effects!

Using these suggestions to create a prosocial program may cause certain known side effects. Children whose television diets contain a large amount of prosocial and educational television in general tend to get along better with others. They are more cooperative, generous and tolerant than their peers who watch less prosocial and more violent fare. Just as research has overwhelmingly demonstrated that violent television can have harmful effects, there is also a large amount of research indicating that prosocial television has both immediate and long-term beneficial effects.

Truly "FCC friendly" programming may not be easy to make. It certainly takes a lot of energy and patience to create a show that is funny, entertaining and yet, teaches children how to be better human beings. Formative research on how children respond and learn from these programs is costly but necessary if effectiveness is the primary goal. For example, every new format of Sesame Street is pre-tested in preschools for children's attention and comprehension. What works is included in the program; what doesn't is revised.

Producers of animation succeed most often when they team up with child development researchers and educators to create programs for children that are educational yet entertaining, informative yet exciting, and full of action and suspense yet free of threats, coercion, and violence. Including certain key ingredients in programs can make the difference between a program that is entertaining but benign and one that is wonderfully creative, prosocial and thoroughly enjoyable. The outcome is worth the effort--that I learned from Captain Kangaroo.

Jennifer Kotler is a doctoral student in Child Development at the University of Texas at Austin. She has spent the past four years as a research assistant at the Center For Research on the Influences of Television on Children (CRITC). Her current research focuses on parental regulation of children's television use.

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