Fame and fortune: the new focus of TV for kids

Published: Thursday, April 12 2012 9:21 p.m. MDT

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"Every time I've entered, I fail to win. So I must have a really good chance this time!"

So says the Pirate Captain in the trailer for the children's animated film, "Pirates: Band of Misfits," arriving in theaters this month. He wants to be Pirate of the Year, for the glory and recognition of all his pirate peers.

But even from the trailer, it is easy to see he is not likely to win such an honor on merit. His cocky cluelessness is the crux of much hilarity. His desire for fame is not linked to any wily pirate skill.

The Pirate Captain is not alone. Desire for fame is increasingly present in the media landscape. In television, especially television geared toward the coveted pre-teenage demographic, many popular fictional characters are either already famous or actively seeking celebrity.

Researchers studying the phenomenon have noticed a parallel trend: as television shows depict fame as a value with increasing popularity, themes like community engagement are declining in prevalence. The change is obvious and abrupt, and comes in tandem with other research showing young people are increasingly focused on wealth and image.

The generation raised on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter looks up to people who attract an audience, fictional or otherwise. Some experts think the new television landscape, populated by celebrities in their own world and the outside one, is both reflecting and contributing to a larger shift in youth culture, where fame for fame's sake is the highest of aspirations, and success of the self is to be prized above all.

The rise of fame

Yalda Uhls, a former film executive and current doctoral student at the University of California Los Angeles, was watching television with her 9-year-old daughter not long ago when she noticed the trend: all of the fictional girls her daughter was watching were famous.

The Disney Channel juggernaut, "Hannah Montana," which debuted in 2006 and ran for four seasons, focuses on a teenage girl who is student by day and rock star by night. "Sonny With A Chance," another Disney offering, told the story from 2009-2011 of a teenage girl who snags a starring role on a comedy sketch show. Nickelodeon's "iCarly," on the air since 2007, features two teenage girls who launch a webcast that skyrockets them to fame. The stars of all three shows are regulars on the red carpet and in tabloids.

"I felt like (all the shows) were skewed toward this changed value system," Uhls said of the experience. She went to her colleague at the Children's Digital Media Center, Dr. Patricia Greenfield, to launch a project examining the phenomenon.

"We decided to look at the past as well as the present to see if there was a change," said Uhls.

She and Greenfield selected two popular television shows from a year in the past five decades — 1967, '77 '87 '97 and 2007. The year 1967, for example, was represented by "Andy Griffith" and "The Lucy Show." "Hannah Montana" and "American Idol" were selected for 2007. They crafted a survey asking participants to rate the importance of 17 different values the show's characters aspired to, among them "fame," "achievement," "image," "community feeling," and "benevolence."

Uhls and Greenfield's study, released last summer, found that as of 2007, fame ranked as the most popular value. In every decade studied before the 21st century, "community feeling," or feeling part of a group, was ranked either first or second. Before 2007, "fame" never got higher than 13 on the list. "Achievement" also jumped to number 2 that year.

Both researchers did a follow-up study in December, talking directly to tweens (age 9 to 12) the shows are targeted to. Twenty children were asked to write down one or two values that they thought were most important to their future, from a list of the most popular values from the last study: fame, benevolence, community feeling, achievement, financial success, self-acceptance, and image.

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