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Child's play

SUNDAY CALENDAR: COVER STORY

Oh, to be young and famous. It's a common fantasy. But are the kids' networks going overboard with it in shows?

November 22, 2009|By Denise Martin
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

In the middle of everything there is a pool. It's flanked by beach chairs under umbrellas, picture-perfect palm trees, actresses, publicists, reporters and other hangers-on. Four good-looking young guys dressed in Hollywood-wear -- skinny jeans, jackets with the collars up and, on one, a loose, pulled-back beanie -- are posing for photographers.

This isn't a scene out of HBO's "Entourage." This is Nickelodeon, a kids' channel best known for the cartoon "SpongeBob SquarePants," introducing the press to its own "Entourage": the stars of its new comedy "Big Time Rush." The show, which premieres Saturday, revolves around a group of Minnesota teens, one of whom is discovered by and able to convince a talent scout that he and his friends have the makings of a chart-topping boy band. Right now, the actors are answering questions on set in L.A.'s fictitious Palmwoods complex, a thinly veiled reference to the Oakwood apartments on Barham Boulevard where young actors take up residence. Kendall Schmidt, who is wearing the beanie, is saying the big difference between "Entourage" and "Big Time Rush," aside from the latter's G rating, is that "everyone in the group is talented, not just one guy. Everyone becomes famous."

But "Entourage" -- even a G-rated "Entourage" -- for 11-year-olds? "Big Time Rush" is just one example in a growing list of kid shows selling showbiz fantasies to children. Kids' TV has long flirted with the competition for fame ("The Mickey Mouse Club," anyone?) and the lure of achieving celebrity at a young age has juiced programming across the board in recent years, with "American Idol," "Gossip Girl," and reality hits "The Hills" and "Keeping Up With the Kardashians." But the genre is stronger than ever now and more fixated on the perks of the glamorous Hollywood lifestyle as Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel compete for the youngest audiences.

Disney airs "Hannah Montana," "Jonas," a comedy about rock trio the Jonas Brothers, and "Sonny With a Chance," starring Demi Lovato as a budding actress and lead of her own TV series. Now Nickelodeon is putting its spin on celebrity. After "Big Time Rush" debuts this week, the channel early next year will launch "Victorious," with 16-year-old Victoria Justice as a girl-next-door type whose hidden talents for singing and dancing are unexpectedly discovered, landing her in a prestigious performing arts school where the students get parts in films and are courted by music producers. Before that, Nickelodeon had some success with "The Naked Brothers Band," a tongue-in-cheek mockumentary about a young rock band.

These shows teach that fame can be a double-edged sword, of course -- Hannah and the Jonas Brothers have regular run-ins with overly zealous fans and try their best to lead "normal lives" -- but they're also wish fulfillment at a time when tabloid dreams are ubiquitous. For proof, look no further than "The Hills' " reality TV villains Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt, out now promoting their new advice book, "How to Be Famous."

Nickelodeon's "iCarly," 2009's most-watched TV show among kids 2-11, according to the Nielsen Co., is about a girl who has attained a certain level of celebrity by producing and starring in her own Web series. Just a few years ago, by contrast, the channel's hits involved the more traditional pains of not being popular ("Unfabulous"), adolescent sibling rivalry ("Drake & Josh") and surviving school ("Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide").

Part of the phenomenon stems from the kids' networks discovering big ancillary bucks to be made in the music business. "Hannah" star Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers are successful pop acts with No. 1 albums and huge touring business (both are signed to Disney's Hollywood Records), while "Sonny's" Lovato has released two solo albums. Nickelodeon's "Big Time Rush" and "Victorious" were developed after the network struck up a partnership with the Columbia/Epic Label Group to produce shows that would revolve around original music.

The strategy is working for Disney Channel, which is winding down its most-watched year ever.In fact, kids' TV is one thriving area of programming amid declining ratings for the broadcast networks' prime-time shows.

Also greeting the press alongside the "Big Time Rush" guys, "Victorious' " Victoria Justice is hula hooping for the cameras and chatting up reporters. She says she was bitten by the acting bug after "seeing a Pringles commercial when I was, like, 8 and going, 'Mommy, I can do that! I wanna be on TV!' " Seeing a potential heir to Cyrus' throne in its midst, the New York Post has already run a breathless profile of the starlet, previously a regular on Nickelodeon's "Zoey 101."

Whether hawking the lifestyles of the rich, young and famous to kids is fair game for entertainment channels -- both Nickelodeon and Disney Channel target kids 2-11 and tweens 9-14 -- depends on how it is presented within the shows, producers say.

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