It used to be that when a television show wanted to get serious, it would take a break from its everyday proceedings for a Very Special Episode, devoted to the consequences of unusual intrusions into what was presumed to be everyday life, including drunken driving, racism, or violence against children.
That terms has fallen out of vogue, not least because shows like “Glee,” desperate to keep viewers tuning in every week in the face of increasingly-stiff competition, gave us a dramatic coming out of the closet or driving-and-texting-related car accident with every outing. But for Cartoon Network, which is on track to collect a million viewer-made videos in an ongoing bullying prevention campaign, raising awareness has become less about trying to push the children who are its target audience into new ways of thinking and more about meeting them where they are.
“I went down to meet with her and said ‘I want to do a bullying prevention game,'” Alice Cahn, vice president for social responsibility at the network said of one of her meetings with Cornelia Brunner, a senior technical adviser at the Educational Development Center. “She said, ‘You idiot. No one’s going to play a bullying prevention game. What are the games that kids are playing?…You need to begin by not disrupting the entire process.'”
To find out how Cartoon Network viewers are engaging with media and to get a sense of what their most pressing concerns are, the network began by talking to focus groups in 2009, and now surveys a group of 300 children every year to gauge their feelings on everything from the recession to bullying.
In the early years of the downturn, the respondents said that they were most worried that their parents or their friends’ parents would lose their jobs. But Cahn said that the top answer when Cartoon Network asked the pool where they thought they could make a change if adults helped them was in lessening the impact of bullying. Specifically, they wanted to know how they could help stand up for their friends.
To meet this demand from their young consumers, Cahn and Cartoon Network reached out to federal anti-bullying programs at the Justice and Health and Human Services departments, to researchers like Susan Limber and Marlene Snyder and looked at the active bystander model of intervention. What they learned runs counter to some pop culture tropes, like the idea that bullying is a behavior that only some people engage in, or that the best way to cope with a bully is to take revenge.
“The roles really shift. The kid who’s doing the bullying on Tuesday maybe got picked on on Friday. Everyone’s been touched,” Cahn said. “If you are doing an episode where a B storyline or an A storyline focuses on bullying behaviors, let’s get it right. Let’s not ignore it. Let’s not make all the adults look like idiots. Let’s not have heroes who are always exhibiting bullying behaviors.”
Then, rather than putting the information they had gathered into a single piece of content, like the anti-bullying game Brunner shot down, Cahn tried to diffuse it. Cartoon Network went through the games it offers online and tweaked the scoring algorithms, so that the in-game rewards would be higher if players employed anti-bullying behavior and players would have incentives to engage in those behaviors repeatedly.
Rather than commissioning bullying-specific storylines, Cahn met with Cartoon Network animators to give them the information. “A guy raised his hand in the back and said, you don’t need to share this with us, in junior high, we were the kids getting our heads stepped on in the toilet bowl,” she recalled. Now, the network produces anti-bullying posters featuring characters from Cartoon Network shows and quotes they have already spoken in episodes — Cartoon Network does not have to put new words in their mouths to get a message across.
And Cartoon Network has tried to give its viewers the material to create their own projects. When the network did a 2012 documentary about bullying, Cahn got educational clearances on the copyright so students could use the footage in classroom projects. The current video campaign is similarly designed to let young viewers do something, rather than simply absorbing a message.
“I love the [It Gets Better] campaign; many of our staff participated,” Cahn said. “But our audience is in second grade. If it doesn’t get better by lunch, it doesn’t matter.”
The big question, of course, is whether Cartoon Network has bested the Very Special Episodes model with a more integrative approach. Cahn does not yet have a verdict, though she hopes to find one.
“Efficacy research, even engagement research takes a long time. We’ve put it into place,” she acknowledged. “It should work. But how it will work and how many times you have to play and how many times you have to exhibit that behavior to get information transfer [are yet to be determined].”
In the interim, though, at least Cartoon Network’s subtler methods are creating better television than the awkward Very Special Episodes of yore, with crossover hits like the surreal cartoon “Adventure Time,” “Teen Titans” and “Steven Universe.”
“My friend Anne Wood, the creator of ‘Teletubbies,’ said to me once, ‘Television for kids has to be a mirror and a window. In that mirror they have to see themselves and their own joys and fears reflected, and through the window they need to show them a world they don’t see every day: people and places and ideas and concerns,'” Cahn said. “They deserve that opportunity to look out beyond their own world.”