HOW IMAGE MAKERS SHAPE KIDS’ TV : Q5 Firm Advises ABC on the Look and Style of Cartoon Shows; Some Writers Call It Intrusion
Saturday mornings on ABC will look a little different this fall. Some of those behind the scenes on this season’s programs like the new look. Others hate it--and the force behind it--with a passion.
Changes in the way some familiar cartoon characters speak, act and look in ABC’s Saturday morning children’s schedule, as well the design of new shows, are largely due to the input of a Glendale-based company with a name like something out of a James Bond movie: the Q5 Corp. In developing programs for the new season, third-rated ABC turned to Q5 for help in improving their kid appeal--and their ratings.
Although Q5--a consulting company made up of Ph.D.s in psychology as well as marketing, advertising and research professionals--has done some work with prime-time television, its extensive involvement with ABC’s children’s shows is unusual for television.
NBC and CBS consult their own advisory panels of social scientists or the network’s program-practices staff regarding their children’s programming, and occasionally use individual academic advisers on completed scripts, but neither employs an outside corporation similar to Q5.
Q5’s objective, as stated in a company manual, is to determine “product payoff.” The level of “product payoff” is “the degree to which a product and its attributes match the needs and wants of the consumer.” In ABC’s case, the product is TV shows and the target is children.
Although by no means the first attempt to match entertainment to target audiences, Q5’s approach differs from the standard questionnaire-type research commonly used to test television shows and concepts. Instead, Q5 offers information about the stage of development of an audience to help writers develop concepts, characters and dialogue that will be appealing to the target.
Q5 bases its recommendations on information culled from standard psychological studies such as Stanford University’s VALS (Value and Lifestyle), which the company files in computer data banks. Such information, its executives believe, can save countless hours of fruitless guesswork. Q5’s client list includes Hallmark, Marvel Productions, 20th Century Fox, Mattel and Fisher Price.
“Regardless of what your problem is, we can solve it, " Q5 President Thomas J. Heinz asserted. “We have worked on (items from) breath mints to car wax to 976 phone numbers. It doesn’t matter--if there’s a product and a target, we can provide a totally unique insight.”
Heinz believes that even a bizarre children’s hit such as “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” can be developed by thorough knowledge of the target audience. “We believe it can be done by design,” he said.
Jennie Trias, ABC’s vice president of children’s programs, praised Q5 for helping to bridge the gap between Saturday morning’s adult writers and the target audience of “2- to 11-year-olds, with a core audience of 5 to 8 and a slight skew toward girls.”
“We got a little more basic understanding of the development of our particular audience,” she said.
Some writers, however, believe that Q5’s input robs writers of their imagination by attempting to make art into science. After all, they argue, Walt Disney, Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss all managed to succeed without Q5.
These writers protest that the company’s work goes dangerously beyond traditional research and test-marketing. Q5’s deliberate targeting of children’s tastes, they believe, may lead to a cuddly, Smurf-like, non-threatening world for children that matches their level of understanding rather than challenging or improving it.
“They aren’t merely researching trends; they’re trying to engage in social engineering,” fumed a former story editor for ABC’s “Little Clowns of Happytown,” who asked that his name not be used. “There’s absolutely no passion with these people.
“There is no sense of honor, of anger, of deep emotion, of love. They’re bland-izers; they try to hammer out all of the high and low points of being a human being. I can see we’re not doing Dostoevsky on Saturday morning, but there has to be some leeway to create characters who are free to express themselves.”
Trias said that some of the writers expressing the strongest negative opinions of Q5 are those who have attended one seminar with Q5 rather that worked extensively with them, and who have the mistaken belief that ABC allows Q5 to dictate changes in shows rather than serving in an advisory capacity.
Trias added that Q5’s reports often simply validated changes that the network planned to make anyway. She said that an observable trend toward soft, “little” characters and away from super-hero, action animation is as much an industry reaction to the recent popularity of “Smurfs” and “Care Bears” as to Q5.
The Q5 debate is at its hottest on “The Real Ghostbusters,” a show that was dramatically altered based on input from both Q5 and ABC.
Last season, Janine, the secretary on “The Real Ghostbusters,” produced for ABC by DIC Enterprises in association with Columbia Pictures Television, was a sharp-edged, miniskirted wisecracker with pointed glasses, dangling bracelets and a fountain of spiky hair. As a result of Q5’s input, she will have softer features, smoother hair, big round glasses and no jewelry. ABC will complete the package with a demure knee-length skirt.
ABC and Q5 believe that the new slant will make the show more accessible to children, especially to little girls who might find the new Janine more appealing. Q5’s work with writers included a separate seminar on the little-girl audience. “The fact that she is now warmer I think is fine,” Trias said.
The story editors for these new episodes, Chuck Menville and Len Janson, agree with Trias (the two also developed another ABC show for fall, “Little Wizards”). “When these people (Q5) started talking, 80% of what they had to say jibed with what we were already thinking, " he said. “They never forced anything down our throats.”
J. Michael Straczynski, a story editor on numerous episodes of last season’s “The Real Ghostbusters,” disagrees. Straczynski, who read Q5’s reports on the cartoon series and participated in a Q5 seminar, will write several episodes of “The Real Ghostbusters” for ABC this season but has recently done more extensive work for a new syndicated version of “The Real Ghostbusters"--which, ironically, will continue to feature the “old” Janine.
“They (Q5) wanted us to knock off all the corners,” he said. “Janine was a strong, vibrant character. They wanted her to be more feminine, more maternal, more nurturing, like every other female on television.”
Straczynski expressed the highest regard for Trias and ABC, but he said that he believes “network paranoia” has led them to use Q5. “It is a truly insidious organization, I make no bones about it at all. A lot of their research and theories are strictly from voodoo,” Straczynski continued. “I think they reinforce stereotypes--sexist and racist. I think they are not helping television, they are diminishing it.”
Said Q5’s Heinz: “It (the change of Janine) was not done on anyone’s gut feeling about what’s creative and what’s not creative, or what’s sexist and what’s not sexist. It’s back to how we can involve more girls when we have primarily men characters. The female was not working for the female target, and we’re sorry she’s not the way she was originally designed, but she’s not.”
In addition to Janine’s new look, described in notes on one DIC character drawing as “generally less harsh & ‘slutty,’ ” she will have a warmer, more nurturing relationship with Slimer, a childlike comic character who sometimes dissolves into slime.
The show also will contain less satire and less subtle, sophisticated verbal humor. “I’ve written a few shows for this season, and they weren’t as much fun as last season,” lamented “Real Ghostbusters” writer Michael Reaves.
As one of numerous examples of this change, the Q5 report notes that some jokes that writers had included about college days and “no intelligent life in New Jersey” would go over the heads of young children. A phrase such as “create the proper ambiance,” the report suggests, could be phrased more simply: “Make this room look like a little boy’s.”
Reaves objected most strongly to a Q5 suggestion that one of the main characters, Ray, the naive nerd played by Dan Aykroyd in the movie “Ghostbusters,” be “selected out” of the show, because he “does not appear to serve to benefit the program.”
“That’s like ‘terminate with extreme prejudice,’ ” Reaves said. “Ray is the dreamer, the idealist; he’s very useful as a foil. They could not find any reason at all for this to be necessary.”
When such changes were discussed at a meeting with Q5, both Straczynski and Reaves were appalled. “I sat there in dumbstruck shock at what they were saying,” Straczynski said. “We (Straczynski and Reaves) just looked at each other and started laughing. We couldn’t deal with it anymore; it had gone so far into the realm of the absurd.”
But Ray will appear in new “Real Ghostbusters” episodes anyway, Menville pointed out. “Once we said we didn’t agree with that, nobody said another word about it,” he said.
Psychologist Corinne Rupert, former vice president of children’s entertainment for Q5, described some “Real Ghostbusters” writers and producers as “resistant to how their work impacts young children and ways in which they can maximize the entertainment value.”
She added that they may be lashing out at Q5 for the many constraints under which the commercial television writer works. “It is a collaborative medium, and that is the reality of the business,” she said.
Rupert added that writers who criticize today’s Saturday-morning animation as inferior to wittier classic fare such as “Bugs Bunny” have forgotten that those cartoons were originally designed for adult moviegoers rather than young children.
And not everyone on the creative side believes that product and target are dirty words.
Along with Menville and Janson, Sheryl Scarborough, a story editor for “Little Clowns of Happytown,” found Q5 helpful and willing to incorporate suggestions from the writers into their own recommendations.
Tom Ruger, a story editor on Hanna Barbera’s “Pound Puppies” for ABC, called the Q5 report on his show “enlightening,” since last year’s efforts to attract kids with “wall-to-wall comedy” had failed.
“We were very good at being hip and flip and funny last year,” he said. “But that can undercut the sincerity--that’s what Q5 hooked me into. When a kid watches our show, he’s going to get a laugh, but he’s also going to get a sincere emotional mission which I think was lacking in the past.”
Karl Guers, a producer/director for Walt Disney TV animation, currently developing a “Winnie the Pooh” series for ABC’s 1988-89 season, also reported a profitable relationship with Q5.
Margaret Loesch, president and chief executive officer of Marvel Productions, said that Q5, which the company hired independently of ABC, helped clarify concepts and solve character problems for their syndicated “Defenders of the Earth” series, based on comic-book characters from King Features.
In the original version, Flash Gordon had a daughter and the Phantom had a son; Q5 suggested they give Flash Gordon the son and the Phantom the daughter, on the theory that children would be more accepting of Flash, the hero, having an offspring of the same sex, and of Phantom, the “more feline” character, having a daughter.
“I was impressed,” Loesch said. “We really needed someone from the outside with a fresh perspective, and they were very, very good.”
Q5 executives explain that their role is not to dictate or formularize, but to provide information about the target audience that writers can use to become more, rather than less, creative. Their recommendations, they say, are complex and wide-ranging rather than specific or narrow, and encourage writers to include sophisticated material or humor that might appeal to older target audiences, provided that younger ones can still understand and relate to the story.
“What we’re here to provide our clients is an increased probability of success, if they’re willing to do their homework and utilize this wonderful resource,” Q5’s Heinz said. “If you want to do it on gut, fine. If you want to do it on gut plus knowledge, there’s another option.”