TV’s Tough-Love Critic

3/06/2005 7:00 PM Eastern

MCN: Do you think kids programming has gotten better over the years?

JON MANDEL: I think for years kids were programmed down to and weren’t treated as humans both commercially and programming-wise, and I think that that was one of the things that Gerry figured out. [Refering to Oxygen Media chairman and CEO Geraldine Laybourne, who was a creative force behind Nickelodeon in its formative years.]

At Nick, [the thinking was] if you talked at eye-level to them, then they’re going to like the programming more. They are going to relate to it more. But if you talk down to them or just try and invent something — make something that you think they’ll like without thinking on their level — it’s not going to resonate as much.

MCN: So you like the kids programming you see today?

MANDEL: I think it’s progressed. It’s still not great. I think that the danger that we have now is, as a medium, kids television is sort of losing out to everything else. That’s partly because of [kids are becoming more mature at a younger age], but partly just because there’s more competing in the entertainment space. There’s videogames. There’s the computer. There’s just so much more for them to do with their time, and I’m not sure that kids programming has really kept pace with that.

A lot of the kids programming — when you look at, and then you look at the other stuff that kids do for entertainment — it looks dated, and the worst thing you can be to a kid is yesterday.

MCN: Do you think that the kids upfront is going to be affected by the pressure that snack food manufacturers are facing from public-interest groups and the government?

MANDEL: I think the kids upfront is going to be impacted. The kids market is in a world of hurt and has been for a number of years.

The problem is you went down to two toy companies. You went down to two cereal companies. Toys “R” Us [Inc.] is in a world of hurt. They’re not really spending any money. So there’s been no real growth.

The gaming stuff has become the hot item, but frankly they’re not advertising so much. So I think you see the effect of it in Cartoon Network really trying to be more adult than kids -- or young men or whatever you want to call it. I guess that’s the same thing as kids though.

I do think the snack-food thing, which is gaining speed, is going to hurt the market further. Because I think people are going to be more cautious.

MCN: There’s also the issue of the Federal Communications Commission fining ABC Family and Nickelodeon, deciding that they ran too many ads in kids shows.

MANDEL: Frankly, I was very distressed to see that. I mean, it’s against the law, and why were they doing it? When you have [The Walt] Disney Co. — which claims to be pure as the driven snow — doing it, and you have Nickelodeon, which is supposed to be so healthful, in a way, doing it, it’s problematic.

I consider it a huge black eye for this industry. I think part of the reason is that, there’s sort of an attitude, in both of those companies, of almost greed. I think at some point they lost their way.

MCN: When you say that you think children’s programming can be better, what are you and your clients not seeing that you’d like to see?

MANDEL: Well, I think — by better I don’t mean educational or informational, because I think the programs that are educational and informational are made by adults trying to preach to children. I think there’s a whole cast of characters telling creators how to create shows that are supposed to be good that actually end up working against type, that aren’t good.

When I say good programming, I mean programming that kids relate to. It’s sort of like talking at eye-level. I think there are too many negative stereotypes in a lot of the shows.

MCN: In terms of race and sex and whatnot?

MANDEL: Yes, in terms of boys are violent, and violence is okay. Kids programming seems to look cheaper now. I think you have to do quality, heavy-production value shows. And I think what’s happened is people are trying to do it cheaper and cheaper and cheaper. And it looks like crap.

Then Nickelodeon gets all these kudos for doing these wonderful shows, but what shows do they do? You can count them on one hand.

MCN: Do you expect that this year your clients that are interested in children’s programming are going to advertise less on television and more in other media?

MANDEL: Well, actually that’s another sore point for me. A lot of people are running around talking about how great [virtual-pet site] “NeoPets” is on the Web. Because it’s got product integration, and it’s got this, and it’s got that, and it’s “pro-social.”

I’m sorry. When you have games [on the Web] where the prizes are french fries, I don’t see that as pro-social. To me, there’s a disconnect. Just because the broadcasters have a station license, they have to follow much stricter rules. I’m not saying those rules shouldn’t exist, but I think we’ve got to find a way so that all media that are reaching children play by the same rules. And I’m not talking about it from a business standpoint; I’m talking about it from a societal standpoint.