Children’s Programming, Product Placements & Trade-Offs

by on October 15, 2010 · 2 comments

One of the old saws we hear from those who wish to impose more stringent regulations on advertising or product placement is that “it’s for the children.”  That is, critics such at the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and other organzations fear that, because children’s brains are less developed or they have not yet learned to differentiate commercial appeals from other types of information flows, kids may be more susceptible to persuasive commercial messaging. I think there’s some truth to that, but I also believe that (a) kids aren’t quite the sheep we make them out to be, (b) the potential “harm” here is not as great as the critics make it out to be and (c) parental supervision should be the primary the solution to the problem.

But let’s ask a different question entirely: Are we willing to forgo additional, and potentially more diverse, forms of children’s programming simply because we want to keep commercial messaging or product placement away from kids?   Consider the case study of The Hub, recently featured in The New York Times:

With imports of European cartoons, a smattering of Hasbro ads and a rerun of the movie “Garfield,” Hasbro and Discovery Communications unveiled a new television brand for children on Sunday, called The Hub. Over time, the two companies hope to prove that there is room for a fourth player alongside Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel and the Cartoon Network, the three heavyweights of children’s TV, said David M. Zaslav, the chief executive of Discovery Communications.  […]

The Hub is a significant retooling of Discovery Kids, a channel available in about 60 million homes that had withered within the portfolio of Discovery Communications… . Discovery Kids came onto television after Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, and it never found a competitive footing. It earned less than 10 cents per subscriber from cable and satellite companies, and most of its ads were of the low-rent direct-response variety. “We were really lying in wait,” said Mr. Zaslav, who determined that he needed a business partner in the children’s market, and last year found an eager one in Hasbro, which paid $300 million for a 50 percent stake in the channel.

As with most media programming decisions, a trade-off is at work here: To ensure diverse new shows or channels can be sustained, programmers must find revenue streams to sustain them.  When direct subscription fees or other advertising methods prove unsustainable, the only remaining option is product sponsorship or some form of underwriting (unless we assume government funding for all children’s programming is an option, which is neither likely nor desirable).

Thus, the cost-benefit calculus comes down to the choice between a new kids’ channel that  includes product promotion, or no programming at all. For some of us, this is an easy call: Diversity and choice should trump concerns about the supposed evils of “commercialism.”  Restricting advertising in the name of “protecting children,” while well-intentioned, would limit cultural diversity and viewer choice and should, therefore, be rejected.

Of course, I feel passionately about that because I do not find the counter-argument convincing. Namely, I don’t think the critics make a good case that a serious “harm” exists from exposure to commercial messages or product placement.  Hell, I can’t even count how many G.I. Joe-related product placement things I grew up consuming; I was obsessed with the stuff.  But so what?  Was I somehow irreparably harmed by it?  And how about those endless Star Wars-related product placements? How were kids harmed by that?  Because they begged Mom and Dad to buy more Star Wars toys?  I could go on with countless examples, but you get the point.

Regardless, the point I am making above is a very different one:  As a parent, would you rather have an additional option like The Hub, even if it includes some product placement / promotion, or would you rather not have an additional choice at all?  Seems like a simple choice to me.  And we should all be free to make it for ourselves and our families.

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