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HOW IMAGE MAKERS SHAPE KIDS' TV : Q5 Firm Advises ABC on the Look and Style of Cartoon Shows; Some Writers Call It Intrusion

September 03, 1987|DIANE HAITHMAN | Times Staff Writer

Saturday mornings on ABC will look a little different this fall. Some of those behind the scenes on this season's programs like the new look. Others hate it--and the force behind it--with a passion.

Changes in the way some familiar cartoon characters speak, act and look in ABC's Saturday morning children's schedule, as well the design of new shows, are largely due to the input of a Glendale-based company with a name like something out of a James Bond movie: the Q5 Corp. In developing programs for the new season, third-rated ABC turned to Q5 for help in improving their kid appeal--and their ratings.

Although Q5--a consulting company made up of Ph.D.s in psychology as well as marketing, advertising and research professionals--has done some work with prime-time television, its extensive involvement with ABC's children's shows is unusual for television.

NBC and CBS consult their own advisory panels of social scientists or the network's program-practices staff regarding their children's programming, and occasionally use individual academic advisers on completed scripts, but neither employs an outside corporation similar to Q5.

Q5's objective, as stated in a company manual, is to determine "product payoff." The level of "product payoff" is "the degree to which a product and its attributes match the needs and wants of the consumer." In ABC's case, the product is TV shows and the target is children.

Although by no means the first attempt to match entertainment to target audiences, Q5's approach differs from the standard questionnaire-type research commonly used to test television shows and concepts. Instead, Q5 offers information about the stage of development of an audience to help writers develop concepts, characters and dialogue that will be appealing to the target.

Q5 bases its recommendations on information culled from standard psychological studies such as Stanford University's VALS (Value and Lifestyle), which the company files in computer data banks. Such information, its executives believe, can save countless hours of fruitless guesswork. Q5's client list includes Hallmark, Marvel Productions, 20th Century Fox, Mattel and Fisher Price.

"Regardless of what your problem is, we can solve it, " Q5 President Thomas J. Heinz asserted. "We have worked on (items from) breath mints to car wax to 976 phone numbers. It doesn't matter--if there's a product and a target, we can provide a totally unique insight."

Heinz believes that even a bizarre children's hit such as "Pee-wee's Playhouse" can be developed by thorough knowledge of the target audience. "We believe it can be done by design," he said.

Jennie Trias, ABC's vice president of children's programs, praised Q5 for helping to bridge the gap between Saturday morning's adult writers and the target audience of "2- to 11-year-olds, with a core audience of 5 to 8 and a slight skew toward girls."

"We got a little more basic understanding of the development of our particular audience," she said.

Some writers, however, believe that Q5's input robs writers of their imagination by attempting to make art into science. After all, they argue, Walt Disney, Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss all managed to succeed without Q5.

These writers protest that the company's work goes dangerously beyond traditional research and test-marketing. Q5's deliberate targeting of children's tastes, they believe, may lead to a cuddly, Smurf-like, non-threatening world for children that matches their level of understanding rather than challenging or improving it.

"They aren't merely researching trends; they're trying to engage in social engineering," fumed a former story editor for ABC's "Little Clowns of Happytown," who asked that his name not be used. "There's absolutely no passion with these people.

"There is no sense of honor, of anger, of deep emotion, of love. They're bland-izers; they try to hammer out all of the high and low points of being a human being. I can see we're not doing Dostoevsky on Saturday morning, but there has to be some leeway to create characters who are free to express themselves."

Trias said that some of the writers expressing the strongest negative opinions of Q5 are those who have attended one seminar with Q5 rather that worked extensively with them, and who have the mistaken belief that ABC allows Q5 to dictate changes in shows rather than serving in an advisory capacity.

Trias added that Q5's reports often simply validated changes that the network planned to make anyway. She said that an observable trend toward soft, "little" characters and away from super-hero, action animation is as much an industry reaction to the recent popularity of "Smurfs" and "Care Bears" as to Q5.

The Q5 debate is at its hottest on "The Real Ghostbusters," a show that was dramatically altered based on input from both Q5 and ABC.

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