Skip to main content

Parents Welcome: How Kids' Shows Are Bridging Generation Gaps

In a scene from the hit summer movie Toy Story 3, young Andy, now collegebound, is finally letting go of his most cherished talismans of childhood.

It is a silly moment for kids as
he hands all of his favorite toys
over to Bonnie, a giggling toddler,
voicing their various roles.
But it’s a bonafide tear-jerker for
adults, as he reluctantly hands
her his beloved Woody, the trilogy’s
melodramatic but fiercely
loyal star.

Andy: “Now Woody, he’s been
my pal for as long as I can remember.
He’s brave, like a cowboy
should be. And kind, and smart.
But the thing that makes Woody
special is, he’ll never give up on
you … ever. He’ll be there for you,
no matter what.”

Andy [taking a last look at his
toys before he heads off to college
“Thanks, guys.”

Cue the tears. Few kids can really
appreciate the loss in that
moment. But film reviews note
that more adults are going to the
film, often without children, and
laughing, even crying in certain
parts. Taking a cue from Pixar,
Dreamworks and other veterans
of kids’ cinema, several cable networks
— notably the two biggest
kid-focused TV empires, Disney
Channel and Nickelodeon — are
harvesting a dual ratings stream
of kids and parents who are “coviewing”
kids shows.

Stuffing a few adult jokes into
cartoons and kids’ shows is an old
trick, but today it’s more prevalent,
and the humor and pathos
is much more textured and effective.
More parents are accustomed
to animation and kids
shows because they’ve grown up
on them on Saturday mornings
and throughout the explosion of
animation on broadcast and cable
TV. (The Simpsons will be 20
years old this year.) Moreover,
many viewers consider children’s
animation a break from the edgy
or violent fare that tends to crowd
the cable lineup.

Nickelodeon/MTVN Kids and
Family Group president Cyma
Zarghami says it’s something far
bigger: a cultural shift in which
the things that set us apart — music,
fashion, sports — are actually
uniting parents and kids, particularly
tweens. “The generational gap
is closing,” she said. “This new
generation of kids … they like being with their families and they
like to watch TV with their families.”

Nickelodeon says that more
than one-fifth of kids 2 to 11
watch its shows with an adult 18
to 49, more than any other network.

“Spending time with parents is
very huge on kids’ wish list,” said
Gary Marsh, chief creative officer
for Disney Channels Worldwide.
So it makes sense to cater to them
“sociologically, as well as from a
business perspective.” At Disney,
the aim for such shows is “kiddriven”
but “family-inclusive.”

Zarghami said Nickelodeon’s
focus is kids-only, and it doesn’t
consciously develop kids shows
with adult humor and situations.
“Good writing works for everybody,”
she said, calling the dual
ratings stream “an unbelievable

Perhaps one of the hottest animated
kid shows to pull in adults
is Phineas and Ferb, an Emmywinning
comedy on Disney
XD and Disney
Channel, showcasing
two charming
tinkerers who create
outrageous inventions
to stave off
summer boredom.
Their pet
platypus is a secret
agent at war
with the mildly evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz,
a caricatured villain. As
the boys go about making their
own brand of summer fun, some
of the rapid-fire jokes are clearly
aimed at adults.

“We have story lines with
Doofenshmirtz — his wife has to
pay him alimony for all his evil
schemes,” said Disney’s Marsh.
“He’s this insane super villain
who has tapped into his wife’s alimony
to take over the tri-state

There are plenty of pop references
for the keen adult viewer.
In the episode “Out to Launch,”
square-headed Ferb says, “Just
like Beggar’s Canyon back home”
— the line spoken by Luke Skywalker
in Star Wars, before he
destroys the Death Star. In the
episode “Ready for the Bettys,”
triangle-headed Phineas, while
trying to save his sister from falling
off a cliff, in his best Capt.
James T. Kirk impression, says,
“Ferb … can you give me … any …
more … power?”

In another recent episode,
“Finding Molly McGuffin,”
kids may chuckle at the series
of wacky police get-ups the
brothers are wearing as they
search for their sister’s doll. But
besides the punny title (McGuffin is movie lingo for any device
that moves a plot forward) adults
will enjoy the same scenes as
send-ups of old cop shows.

The kids are sketched as detectives
in black and white from
Dragnet, the ’70s duo Starsky
& Hutch
, and
the ’80s combo of
Sonny Crockett
and Ricardo
Tubbs from
Miami Vice.
The montage
ends with Phineas
taking off his glasses
to the opening
scream of The Who’s
“Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the
theme song to CSI: Miami.

A poster named “snowmonsterism”
wrote on a YouTube video
of the scene: “My little brother
was watchin this and i burst out
laughing the moment i saw this,
he just looked at me like i was
nuts. sigh.”

Fans have flooded blog posts
with effusive comments about
how “smart” the kids’ series is:
“The vocabulary on the show has
to sail over a lot of young kids’
heads. I’m constantly amazed at some of the words they toss
off in the episodes. Here are a
few: Animosity, Serendipitous,
Condescending, Ambiguous,
Introspection, Nefarious, Equilibrium,
Genuflect, Proletariat,
Soliloquize, Plethora, Subjective
... and they mention things like
corporate retreats, poetic justice,
ponzi schemes,” smiddlecn wrote
in a post on

But at the heart of it, says cocreator
Dan Povenmire, it’s a
sweet kids show that the entire
family can watch. Povenmire,the
voice of Doofenshmirtz, won the
2010 Emmy Award for Outstanding
Writing in Animation and
writes and performs songs heard
in the show. In the U.S., through
June 27, Phineas and Ferb ranks as
TV’s No. 1 animated series among
kids 6 to 11 and tweens 9 to 14.

“We didn’t want a show populated
with jerks and idiots,”
Povenmire said. “Once you go to
a mean place, it’s easy to go for a
laugh. I said, ‘Let’s see if we can
make a show that will make people
laugh without making it mean
or raunchy.’ ” Povenmire’s partner
is Jeff “Swampy” Marsh (The
Simpsons; Family Guy

Disney is betting the two boys
are breakout stars. This week,
both Disney Channel and Disney
XD will air a new one-hour
episode titled “Summer Belongs to
You,” featuring a duet from Clay Aiken
and Chaka Khan. (Typical episodes
are 15 minutes.) Phineas and
Ferb: Across the Second Dimension
an upcoming Disney Channel original
movie, is planned for release in
June of 2011.

Povenmire and some other
writers feel as if today’s TV is
too balkanized. “I felt TV got very
segmented about how it was programming,
very specific about
age groups. And I remember
watching as a child The Wonderful
World of Disney
and we all
got together to
watch it.”

Teddy Newton,
an artist at
Pixar behind
the “Day and Night” short before
Toy Story III, said kids’ animated
movies and shows today “might
be darker and harsher, but they
are also a little more honest.”
And hopefully, he says, worthy
of drawing parents. He is haunted
by the image of a father dropping
off two toddlers at a theater
to see Madagascar, then going to
watch an grown-up movie.

Phineas and Ferb
, as well as
Nick’s SpongeBob SquarePants and The Penguins of
, are just a few of the
animated shows that have crossed
generational borders. But just as
popular with parents and kids are
live-action series.

Disney’s Hannah Montana, featuring
Miley Cyrus as a pop singer
raised by a single parent, has this
year more than doubled its ratings
with women 18 to 49 compared to
previous years. The network is betting
that Good Luck Charlie will be
equally hot with two audiences.
Over one-third of the adults 18-
plus (37%) that watched the first
11 original episodes of Good
Luck Charlie
viewed them
with a kid aged 6 to 14. In the
second quarter, Good Luck
ranked as the No. 1
series on television among
kids 6 to 11 and tweens 9 to 14.

Disney’s Marsh said the brand
has to be relevant to families’ lives.
“The conversation about a child
getting a driver’s license (Good
Luck Charlie
) is, ‘this is freedom
and everything I want to do in life,’
but in the father’s mind, it’s something
totally different.”

Nickelodeon’s iCarly, a liveaction
show about a teenager who
creates her own Internet show, is
the No. 1 live-action show on television
among kids 2 to 11 (through
June 27); one-fifth of the audience
watches with an adult.

Dan Schneiderman, creator of
iCarly and other Nick hits such as
Zoey 101 and Drake and Josh, said
he enjoys seeing families getting
together to watch his shows. He’s
even more impressed by adultsonly

“What I’ve noticed on the Web,
at least a quarter of the time, are
posts like, ‘I’m 26 and I watch
iCarly — am I weird?’; or, ‘I’m 40
and I watch iCarly when the kids
aren’t home. Am I crazy?’ ” Schneiderman
is also behind Victorious,
Nickelodeon’s answer
to Disney’s High School Musical
franchise, another bonafide coviewing

On Nick’s schedule, iCarly
is flanked by other
crossover shows such
as SpongeBob, The Penguins of
, and, later in the
evening, from Nick sister service
Nick at Nite, as off-net sitcoms
The George Lopez Show, Malcolm
in the Middle
and Everybody
Hates Chris

Several channels across the
dial can lay claim to co-viewing.
Talent contests such as Fox’s
American Idol
or competitions
such as CBS’ Survivor are certainly
drawing different generations.
And ABC Family’s targeted audience,
millennials (14 to 34 years
old) are big fans of The Secret Life
of the American Teenager, Huge,
Pretty Little Liars
and Make It or
Break It
. Cartoon Network’s lineup
for adults and kids often brings
them in together.

Ironically, one of the most popular
kids’ shows among adults,
SpongeBob SquarePants, isn’t intended
to be so … adult. SpongeBob, of course, long ago etched
a spot in the pantheon of crossover
animation, becoming a cult
hit among kids’ parents and stoners
in college.

Though its eponymous main
character lives on his own and
works a job at the Krusty Krab,
SpongeBob is just for kids, said
Steven Banks, SpongeBob writer
and comedian.

“We never think, ‘Let’s throw
this in for the adults,’ ” Banks
said. “There’s no innuendo or inside
jokes — it’s silly and simple.
We always think, ‘Would kids get
this?’ ”