TV Tries to Talk to Kids About Coronavirus

Nickelodeon, Disney and Sesame Workshop, three of the nation’s best known makers of kids’ entertainment, are going to start tackling more dramatic stuff.

The ViacomCBS kids’ network will tonight at 7 p.m. eastern present “#KidsTogether: The Nickelodeon Town Hall,” an hour-long special that aims to help kids gain more understanding about changes wrought in their lives by the spread of coronavirus. Disney Channel, meanwhile, on Friday unveiled a series of messages from many of the actors who populate its programs that show up in breaks between shows. And Sesame Workshop this week will distribute videos that talk about how to sneeze properly and providing comfort, among other topics. One highlight: a “Washy Wash” song from Elmo.

Getting the tone right is crucial. “We want to strike a balance between being informative and not frightening kids,” says Paula Kaplan, executive vice president of talent for Nickelodeon, in an interview.

All three media outlets typically offer comedy, music and humor. But they also feel a responsibility to help their younger viewers through a tumultuous era.

Nickelodeon’s Kaplan says the news show will be hosted by actor Kristen Bell (pictured, above), whom many viewers will know through her affiliation with Disney’s “Frozen” franchise, and mix in recommendations for staying healthy while examining changes brought on by social distancing and sheltering at home. Guests, who connected with Bell via video from all over the United States, include Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, the California Surgeon General as well as former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, along with Ellen Degeneres Charli D’Amelio, Kel Mitchell, Kenan Thompson, Russell and Ciara Wilson, JoJo Siwa, Jayden Bartles, Lea Michele, John Cena and Tia Mowry.

The show will tackle everything from how to ask a parent to help with a math problem to whether a pet dog can get the contagion, Kaplan says, along with other topics.

The Disney interstitials include cameos from Milo Manheim, Kylie Cantrall, Meg Donnelly and Sky Katz, among others. The company consulted with Dr. Arthur Pober, a specialist in media, education and child psychology. Animated Sesame spots will be distributed animated spots will be distributed via partners including  HBO, PBS KIDS and local PBS stations, Univision, the Ad Council and YouTube. Additional tools that include coping strategies and child-friendly explanations for tough questions are available on SesameStreet.org/caring

Nickelodeon has a well-regarded history in speaking to children during moments of crisis or confusion. Between 1992 and 2015, the kids’ outlet produced more than 150 episodes of “Nick News” with well-regarded anchor Linda Ellerbee. The series tackled issues ranging from global warming to hate crimes and sexual harassment. Disney has also recently worked to talk to kids about serious issues, including a series of vignettes that talked about what to do if a child finds a gun in the house. The Disney Channel series “Andi Mack” tackled gun safety issues in 2018. And Sesame Workshop has for decades talked to kids about all kinds of issues ranging from death to having a parent who may be incarcerated.

But those efforts were prepared with lots of advance time. Nickelodeon’s Kaplan says the new special came together over the last seven days, with producers reaching out to actor Bell after seeing her social-media postings about how her family has coped with the pandemic. “She has been living thorough this. Her husband was quarantined and for a time was away from the family,” explains Kaplan. “She has handled this with humor and empathy and really just talks directly and specifically to kids.”

Producers were working on the program, which will be taped, over the weekend, says Kaplan. Many previous kids’ news specials featured guests talking to children in the studio, but “this was a very different model,” the executive says. “Nobody could be together.”

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