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?
Actress Victoria Justice(2nd from right) and the cast in the taping of a high school performance scene for the show "Victorious" at Nickelodeon's studio in Hollywood. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
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.
"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."