Nothing puts grown-ups in touch with the world more effectively than Turner Broadcasting’s CNN and its companion channel, Headline News. So when the Turner newsies turned their attention to putting young people in touch and announced the Sept. 27 launch of Real News for Kids, hopes were high for a smart, accessible, intelligent presentation of world events for teens and ‘tweens.
Keep on hoping. After six weekly editions of the half-hour, multisegmented program, the result is an overproduced, meticulously packaged infotainment in which the real-enough news is youthified with soulless, in-your-face graphics and nonstop synth sound. Better Turner should call it News Kids on the Block.
Real News For Kids’ coverage of the final weeks of the presidential campaign illustrated the program’s failings in general. The program persistently reduced the campaign to gimmicks, sound bites, and glib paraphrases of meaty issues, as if the whole election process were raw material for a 10,000 Maniacs video.
Typical was the ”Election Eve” show on Nov. 1, two days before the vote. Not only was the election relegated to the program’s second segment — after a less topical report on lead poisoning — but this final chapter of one of the year’s biggest stories consumed only 120 seconds. First, co-anchor Gary Goldstein breezily updated the presidential campaign (”the candidates are going ballistic”), gave a status report (”the polls show the race is pretty darn close”), set up 10-second, equal-time sound bites (”the candidates are still talking about money matters”), and signed off with a quick review of the candidates’ recent name-calling — using his own words, not the candidates’. This was little news, even less reality.
Rather than enlightening young viewers on major issues or breathing life into their dry social studies textbooks, Real News persistently dragged the Bush-Clinton race down to its lowest denominator. In one program’s laudable attempt to explain our economic crisis, the country’s $4 trillion budget deficit was mentioned exclusively in terms of being equal to Michael Jordan’s salary for 1 million years. There was not a word about the debt’s implications for future generations — including the one for whom this show is intended.
One Real News positive is the on-screen talent that presides over each week’s dozen or so segments. While co-anchors Goldstein and Jenn Harris are pleasantly slick happy-talkers in their 20s, the 10 bureau chiefs and 3 other correspondents are mostly in their early teens; these kids represent a multiplicity of cultures and project an earnestness that frequently lends stories whatever substance they have. They make you actually look forward to watching the nightly news in the year 2012.
Dooming this impressive team’s current effort, however, is a pervasive presumption that serious events must be passed through a glitz filter before young people will pay attention, an attitude that makes news — such as the presidential campaign reports — subservient to obnoxious production values. Who says that kids can’t take their news straight like other people, as long as it is made relevant and accessible to them by mechanisms more ambitious than references to athletes’ salaries?
Nothing sums up the mind-set of Real News better than TBS’ choice of other programming to promote in commercials during the show. Rather than tout CNN or Headline News, the spot encourages viewers to watch TBS’ Cartoon Network. Kids deserve better. So does the news. D