Reality TV's Hot New Trend: Kids on Camera
'Little Big Shots' and 'MasterChef Junior,' both featuring children, are rare unscripted hits.
This story first appeared in the April 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
It was supposed to be the next Survivor. In 2007 CBS placed a big bet on Kid Nation, in which 40 children were sent to a town in New Mexico to fend for themselves. They slaughtered chickens for food, set up a government and struggled to survive without adults. The network called it a "social experiment," but kids ages 8 to 15 suffered injuries and anguish in what critics blasted as exploitation. An investigation was launched, advertisers bailed, ratings underwhelmed and children all but disappeared from reality TV.
Until now. Suddenly, kids' shows are the hottest trend on the small screen. NBC's Little Big Shots has become a surprise hit. Fox is riding high with MasterChef Junior and is lining up So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation for a May 30 debut. And Lip Sync Battle Jr. is in the works at Spike sister network Nickelodeon.
The secret to their success: Ditch the risky storylines and overbearing stage moms (think Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Dance Moms), and just let kids be kids. "People like watching kids, but they get scared when they think the kid is going to be competitive or tortured or exploited," says Mike Darnell, president of unscripted and alternative TV at Warner Bros. "MasterChef Junior turned the tide."
The spinoff, which launched in September 2013, averaged a 1.8 rating among adults 18-to-49 in its most recent season. Although it is a competition series like its progenitor, the younger contestants elicit a far less cutthroat tone from host Gordon Ramsay. "When an adult leaves the kitchen after being with us for eight weeks, they feel like, 'God, I'm so tragic,'" says executive producer Robin Ashbrook, who also executive produces Little Big Shots. "When a kid leaves … they walk out with a big smile."
Some shows jump through extra hoops to accommodate children and avoid any Kid Nation-like calamities. Ashbrook says there are rigorous safety precautions taken on MasterChef Junior, including one medic for every two kiddie contestants on set.
Meanwhile, the action in Little Big Shots is not nearly as life-threatening. Guests engage in more childproof activities like singing, dancing, spelling and even hypnotizing animals. It has turned into ratings gold for the Warner Horizon variety show produced by Ellen DeGeneres and hosted and produced by Steve Harvey. In an otherwise bleak unscripted landscape of aging hits and failed new titles, the show drew a 2.9 demo rating and 12.7 million live-plus-same-day viewers out of the gate in March, the largest broadcast alternative launch in five years. And the appeal reaches far beyond America. The show received a straight-to-series order from the U.K.'s ITV, and a Spanish version is in the works as well.
Industry veterans warn that there are no guaranteed hits. For every MasterChef Junior or Little Big Shots, there's an American Juniors, an offshot of American Idol that flopped in 2003. "It's a very fine line. You cannot treat them like kids. It must be an adult version of the show with kids in it," warns Darnell, who was involved in American Juniors while at Fox. "The minute you do a kids' version of a competition show — I made that mistake with American Juniors — it becomes a kids' show and no longer appeals to the broad audience."
Younger participants offer something lacking on TV, according to NBC alternative and late-night chief Paul Telegdy. "There's a lot of shrill, negative stuff going on in the world," he says, "and [Little Big Shots] is a show that hasn't got a nasty bone in its body." Also helping turn the tide has been TV's biggest competition: the Internet. Children have found fame online with memorable clips that score millions of views — and condition TV audiences to crave that type of content. "Little Big Shots is like YouTube viral videos combined with Kids Say the Darndest Things — it's the best of both worlds," notes one top reality agent. "It's like watching YouTube."
It was these type of kid-crafted videos that convinced Lip Sync Battle executive producer Casey Patterson to pursue a spinoff with kids. Lip Sync Battle Jr. — in development — hopes to appeal to all ages. Instead of a straight competition series, the spinoff will include comedy pieces in addition to the music segments. Adds Patterson, "I don't know if I would be as extreme as saying it saves reality TV, but I certainly think it's really hopeful that the things that are rising to the surface are so family-friendly."
Lesley Goldberg contributed to this report.