Why Kids Make It Big on Israeli TV

Programs starring children and teens such as 'Music School,''Children's Master Chef' and 'Euphoria' are a big hit among adults.

When it aired more than a year ago, "Music School" became an instant hit. Week after week its viewer ratings were handsome, averaging 29.8 percent of the country's population, according to the Israel Audience Research Board.

Hundreds of thousands of viewers watched it on prime time, following the musical competition between the contestants. Over the year, the program was second only to "Big Brother," beating big hits such as "A Star is Born," "The Race for the Million," "Ramzor" (Traffic Light ) and the satirical "Eretz Nehederet."

The program was based on children, and its second season, beginning next week on Channel 2, will also feature 8-year-olds. This age group is represented in the children and toddler channels, and its presence on adult prime time isn't obvious. It doesn't seem likely that such young protagonists should make their way to the hearts of adult viewers.

"Music School" isn't the only program starring children to recently enjoy success among adults. The children's version of "Master Chef" also scored high ratings - a season average of 24.8 percent. Another example, from a different genre - drama - is the somewhat coarse "Euphoria," aired on cable channels and dealing with the lives of teens aged 17 or less, starring very young actors. Not really children, but still the question arises: Why do programs dealing with children and teens appeal to viewers who could be their parents?

The 'dogs and children' cliche

Examining the ratings of these programs can offer some sort of answer. "Children's Master Chef" viewers were mostly between the age of four and 17, but other programs were viewed by a different age group. "Eupohria" is aired on cable, and therefore its rating isn't measured by the Israel Audience Research Board, but one can assume the age group of its viewers by considering the fact that it is aired at a late hour and isn't available to children on VOD. As for "Music School," the segmented rating statistics present an interesting fact: Children and teens account for only 14 percent of the viewers, meaning that almost 86 percent were adults.

The obvious answer is the age-old cliche about dogs and children: They're lovable, naive and sweet, and hard to resist. According to this reasoning, their use on the screen is bound to succeed.

Israel Audience Research Board head Yifat Ben-Hai Segev, who is also a researcher and lecturer at the Bar-Ilan University School of Communication, explains: "Children steal the show, and that's true also in the cinema and theater. They can say the bitter truth, but it is accepted amicably. There's something pleasant about the child's status, but it's important to stress: These aren't children's shows. They don't sing children's songs or cook children's food."

Most of the creators of these shows will disagree with the first part of Ben-Hai Segev's observation and enthusiastically agree with the second. Yoav Tzafir, the director of "Children's Music School," is adamantly opposed to the idea that the program exploits a recipe for success and offers another explanation for the programs' success: "People tend to believe that a program with children is a sure hit, but I believe the opposite is true. There's no secret recipe for success; a show won't succeed only because it presents children. One can easily fail. It just isn't true that children plus dogs equal instant success.

"I believe that what happens in Children's Music School is a precise and successful recipe. Children meet teachers who are one or two generations older than them, and are acquainted for the first time with songs that for most viewers are significant and nostalgic. The past meets the future, because these songs are part of Israel's history and of almost every person who lives here. It grips the heart in a manner that's hard to explain - you find yourself reminiscing about how things were when you were a child. It's nostalgic on the one hand, while on the other it makes you - the viewer - think about your children. I'm positive that if it was a competition with new songs, the magic wouldn't happen."

The new episodes clarify Tzafir's words. The children, who fill the stage one after another, deal with a collection of songs ranging from Mizrahi crooner Sasha Argov to Eretz Yisrael songstress Naomi Shemer, from Ashkenazi troubadour Chava Alberstein to Yemenite diva Ofra Haza. Their interpretation is never fearful of the original, canonic version, and the effect on the viewer combines a sense of initiation to a certain mode of Israeli existence, experienced by the contestants in hugging, familial manner, rife with nostalgia. They allow the older viewer to reflect lovingly about himself and his past.

The result on screen is complete escapism, pure entertainment, without any bitterness. Anger at a failed interpretation dissipates swiftly. The young, amateur singer with his soft naivete isn't a TV star who generates antagonism.

Unification and obliteration

Dr. David Gurevitz, head of the Media and Popular Culture Program at the School of Media Studies of the College of Management Academic Studies views the success of these programs as a characteristic of a larger cultural and sociological phenomenon. "This reveals a larger phenomenon: the unification of the adult and children's world," he says. "A unified world that does away with childhood - the children are little adults and the parents become children. The age gap is obliterated, as well as the responsibility, and this trend, expectedly, is reflected in TV content as well."

Gurevitz's comments bring to mind an advertisement aired currently by one of the Internet suppliers depicting a young child "taking care" of her impatient parents. "Entertainment, in this reality, becomes a party," he explains. "Children watch their parents' shows - "Master Chef" is suited for them as well - and the parents watch programs with their kids. It's the same concept of escapism, and it's a cultural norm. It's fun for all: They're all dressed in jeans, everybody refuses to die or mature on the one hand, or to be children on the other. It's a unified, obliterated world."

Still, there might be something positive about it. Ben-Hai Segev believes that the "secret of success of 'Music School' and 'Children's Master Chef' is the change they brought to reality shows. These programs changed the essence of these shows, which previously reflected the conflicts in tribal Israeli society. If all the other reality shows told us the tale of separation and conflict, here the 12 tribes hug and are nice to each other, especially when the shows are accompanied by pleasant, nostalgic music."

And how does the viewing family react?

"I can answer that question more as a mother and less as a researcher: They allow parents and children to communicate. They create a platform for inter-generational communication. These shows create a content common to children and parents, and a common language. When the parents' childhood experiences merge with the Cinderella stories of reality shows, it simply works."

Roi Berkovich