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SUNDAY CALENDAR: COVER STORY

Child's play

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

"If there is anything I've learned about kids today -- and I'm not saying this is good or bad -- it's that they all want to be stars," said Dan Schneider, creator of "iCarly" and "Victorious," who has spent over a decade producing children's shows. ("Victorious" is his seventh for Nickelodeon.) "I'm not saying it wouldn't be nice if more of them wanted to be teachers and social workers; it would be. But at least in 'Victorious,' you see a world where they're all working on the talent part."

Fantasy or expectation?

"Have you ever seen so many beautiful teenagers in one place?" asked Marjorie Cohn, Nickelodeon executive vice president of original programming and development. It's a week after the press event, and as the network preps for the launch of its new shows, Cohn said she sees no problem in tapping into a trend that's "timely and juicy and delicious."

"Every kid thinks they're five minutes away and one lucky circumstance from being famous," she said. "We've always responded to what's out there in the cultural zeitgeist and spin it Nickelodeon style," citing how "iCarly" in 2007 jumped on the YouTube phenomenon.

But Deborah Linebarger, director of the Children's Media Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, said the issue is not so much about wanting to be splashed on the cover of US Weekly as it is about "the unrealistic pressure wanting to be famous puts on such a young age group."

"Of course, there is a sense of escapism in these shows, which can be charming and magical, and that's fine. But there's also this sense that such achievements are possible, especially if you're good-looking, when statistically they really aren't," Linebarger said. While shows like "Gossip Girl" are targeted at young adults, "Nick's viewers are at a stage when they're developing their sense of self and are particularly vulnerable to these images," she said.

Brent Poer, managing director of the West Coast offices of ad-buying firm MediaVest, said because of "YouTube and digital technology and social networks, the idea of fame has changed. It's a lot easier to become 'famous.' " But he also defends the trend: "It's very hard to engage a younger audience today without some hooks. Disney's shows aren't so much about the industry as they are about dancing and singing and performing," Poer said. "They still tell stories that have morals, it's just a lot easier for a kid to swallow the lesson with that backdrop. Otherwise it's an after-school special."

Gary Marsh, president of entertainment for Disney Channels Worldwide, reasoned that "the setting for our storytelling is far less important than the story we tell in that setting." That said, the network's research shows "music and entertainment are a huge part of kids' lives -- and they have tremendous social currency. So it's not surprising that they also play a part in some of the series and movies that we create."

Schneider said he's ambivalent about encouraging the parents of kids who are constantly asking him how to break into the business. "On the one hand, every parent thinks their kid has it. Most of them don't."

On the other hand, he wasn't discouraged by his own parents when at 18 he told them he was moving out West from Memphis, Tenn., to pursue a career in comedy. "The way I see it, you've got to encourage everyone so the good ones try."

Schneider cast Justice in "Zoey 101" when she was 12 and knew early on that he wanted to develop a show around her. "Of course, she's gorgeous and can sing and dance and all that, but she's also really funny, and my business is comedy. She's like a young Goldie Hawn," he said.

"Victorious" inspires kids "to be confident, to be true to themselves. No one's a celebrity on the show," Justice said. During the filming of one scene in an upcoming episode, Justice's character, Tori, gets into a heated argument with a snobby movie star on a film set where Tori is an extra. The exchange ends in a high-pitched squeal and Tori being banished from the set. No special treatment here.

Though all the hallmarks of the fabulous life are in place -- the stars of "Big Time Rush" and "Victorious" are, in fact, all attractive, thin and well dressed -- the actors, and their alter egos, work overtime toward their goals.

" 'Big Time Rush' is much more about what happens the day after you win 'American Idol,' " Nickelodeon's Cohn said. "The guys' characters enjoy the perks of Hollywood, but we wrap everything in totally relatable stories." One of the first episodes revolves around the group fighting over the same girl; another, about them trying to get out of school work.

Hey, it could happen

Seated inside the boys' fictitious apartment, which has its own slide and big-screen TV, "Big Time Rush" executive producer Scott Fellows said his inspiration for the series was more the Monkees than "Entourage."

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