Children's shows and the Fourth Wall
April 24, 2015 4:07 AM   Subscribe

Is there any research that has spurred children's shows to break the fourth wall? Or, are there any compelling arguments for the practice?

A lot of children's shows, mostly cartoons, seem to break the fourth wall these days. They often do this in service of a little teaching moment, where they ask for help from the audience and then pause while they are supposedly getting the answer. Sometimes they just directly address the audience to sort of make them feel included (a la Mr. Rogers).

I'm curious if there is anything driving this beyond preference and fashion. Does anyone know of any developmental or other research supporting this? In lieu of that, does anyone know of any arguments for or against the practice (specifically for children's programming) that isn't necessarily supported by research?
posted by OmieWise to Media & Arts (12 answers total)
This is a response borne of observation of a particular phenomenon, rather than any scholarship -

I wonder if the breaking-the-fourth-wall came about as a result of observing how children react to entertainment itself. Very young children take a while to understand the convention of TV or movies or plays as "not real", and as something happening apart from them, and so they can be incredibly "present" when they're watching. I was once in a children's theater show when I was a teenager, some stupid little thing about a leprechaun capturing people who tried to steal his gold; the first scene had the leprechaun putting his gold behind a rock as a "trap" and telling everyone that anyone who tried to take it away would be frozen to the spot and then he'd take them down to his dungeon, and then I came on in the very next scene, playing one of a bunch of kids who found the gold. And in one show, in the moment that I "found" the gold and was reaching for it, I heard three little girls sitting right in front of me desperately whispering to me, "No, DON'T TOUCH IT! DON'T TOUCH IT!" (I think that was the same show when the leprechaun, newly reformed, resolved to share his gold by freeing everyone and throwing a party for us all, and a little girl shouted, "let me come too!")

So the breaking-the-fourth-wall may have come about as a response to "well, the kids are gonna be talking to the TV anyway, maybe we can talk back."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:23 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think a lot of kids shows going back to the earliest days of TV broke the fourth wall. I mean, Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo used to talk to the kids at home. I don't know if those shows did the call-and-response thing you mention. I'm pretty sure Romper Room did, though.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:45 AM on April 24, 2015 [6 favorites]

Yeah, I'm pretty sure this goes back a long time. I always got the feeling, back when I was a kid, that children's show producers/adults felt that children somehow had trouble distinguishing television programming from reality, and created content that spoke directly with children via breaking the fourth wall. Something I felt was very patronizing at the time. People like Pee Wee Herman and Soupy Sales before him subverted this practice for comic effect.

It would be an interesting topic for research. Why this practice began, if it's on the rise, etc.
posted by 2N2222 at 5:01 AM on April 24, 2015

Children's Television Network, makers of Sesame Street, have done a ton of research on how children watch the show. The wiki page provides a useful load of links:
posted by threetwentytwo at 5:07 AM on April 24, 2015 [12 favorites]

In the early days, a lot of it was advertising as well. You want Timmy to tell Mom to go out and buy this cereal immediately.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 5:34 AM on April 24, 2015

I don't know if those shows did the call-and-response thing you mention. I'm pretty sure Romper Room did, though.

I was an ardent Romper Room fan in the Fifties and am pretty sure you're thinking of the "Magic Mirror" segment at the end of each show.

From wikipedia:

"At the end of each broadcast, the hostess would look through a "magic mirror" – actually an open hoop with a handle, the size and shape of a hand mirror – recite the rhyme, "Romper, bomper, stomper boo. Tell me, tell me, tell me, do. Magic Mirror, tell me today, have all my friends had fun at play?" She would then name the children she saw in "televisionland", saying, for example, "I can see Kathleen and Owen and Julie and Jimmy and Kelly and Tommy and Bobby and Jennifer and Martin" and so on. Kids were encouraged to mail in their names, which would be read on the air – first names only."
posted by Short Attention Sp at 5:37 AM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

You might want to check out Mr. Rogers' writings about how he develops his television show and what he chose to say to the children watching at home. I'm sure he has plenty of other writings elsewhere, but what I've read is this collection of letters he received and the responses he sent back.
posted by meese at 5:56 AM on April 24, 2015

We have a show in Australia called Playschool, that is specifically designed to appear as 2 presenters talking to one child, they do this specifically because they believe it is important for the children watching to feel valued by the presenters and to not feel ignored as preschool children especially do not understand why the people on TV are not responding to them. It is the second longest running childrens show in the world, so they are doing something right.
posted by wwax at 5:58 AM on April 24, 2015 [4 favorites]

Since this has been done since way back in the early days of TV, I expect the practice grew out of radio shows. Lots of radio shows intentionally created a private conversation type of feel.
posted by phunniemee at 6:32 AM on April 24, 2015

Well, this predates television. It's a staple of things like the pantomime tradition in England. The call and response and addressing the audience as part of the narrative.

But also remember that a lot of the early children's tv shows got started on radio where addressing the audience directly was normal. So when shows like Howdy Doody transferred to TV, they also brought along their structure...and that included addressing the audience and breaking the fourth wall.
posted by inturnaround at 6:57 AM on April 24, 2015

I'm betting that breaking the fourth wall with kids actually predates television. Children's theater and puppet shows have probably been doing this for centuries.

A quick google search of the terms "television" "fourth wall" "children" turned up a 2008 dissertation by Amanda Lynn Bruce entitled "Creating consumers and protecting children: Radio, early television and the American Child: 1930-1960."

She mentions the "fourth wall" once. You can see that paragraph in google books.

Honestly, consumer research is often (horrifyingly) far more prolific than developmental, academic research when it comes to children and teens. But the aim is not to demonstrate developmental appropriateness of media practices - it is to unlock and maximize consumer behavior in kids.
posted by vitabellosi at 7:19 AM on April 24, 2015

Warner Bros. cartoons were regularly breaking the 4th wall back in the 30's, 40's and 50's. Any live-people show, like Capt. Kangaroo, Soupy Sales, etc. were based on speaking directly to the camera and addressing the kids personally.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:52 AM on April 24, 2015

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