Public television station WGBH has been on the cutting edge of children’s programming for decades, but its latest show is designed for every conceivable electronic device but one: the TV set.
“Plum Landing,” an all-digital production, is designed to teach children ages 6 to 9 about environmental science — using games, animations, and short live-action videos.
Instead of sitting in front of the television for half an hour, young viewers are encouraged to undertake “adventures” by drawing pictures of wildlife, for example, or going outside to take photos. And the show is accessed mainly by smartphones, tablets, and computers.
By getting youngsters to engage in the material and exchange their own content with WGBH, the veteran programmer found itself navigating a number of legal and technical issues and having to create safeguards to protect their privacy.
“These technologies are naturally social and very identifiable,
so as we’re making all this content, we’re basically protecting kids from themselves,” said Bill Shribman, senior executive producer
for children’s media. “These children are literally left to their own devices.”
To keep children from posting “selfies” or other personal information online, WGBH developed a process to screen and approve user-submitted content before publication. The primary challenge was scale. To ensure a steady flow of content from children, WGBH needed an efficient workflow that allowed nontechnical people to quickly scan and publish material as it comes in.
The system allows a WGBH producer to review, approve, and edit 300 submissions in an hour. Each drawing or photo is automatically formatted, categorized, and published directly to the PBS Kids portal, where “Plum Landing” is hosted.
That’s lightning speed compared to “Zoom,” a children’s show relaunched in the late 1990s that also had a heavy emphasis on viewer participation. Back then, each submission required manual formatting of files and technicians to post user content online, limiting the number to 1,500 items a week.
PBS also minimizes the information it takes from children by not requiring an e-mail address to register and discouraging them from using last names or other personal information.
The approach that WGBH is taking with “Plum Landing” is well thought out and progressive, said Q Beck, chief executive of Famigo, an Austin, Texas, firm whose app helps parents select appropriate content for their children.
As media and entertainment companies venture further into digital media, they are wrangling with privacy and technology issues that didn’t exist before smartphones, tablets, and social media took off.
“I don’t think people have this figured out yet,” Beck said. “There’s a Wild West element where people are trying a bunch of new things to see what’s easy and scalable.”
Even regulations are barely keeping pace with technology.
Congress passed the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act in 1998, giving the Federal Trade Commission responsibility for enforcement. The intent is to give parents more control over the information collected about their children online. To comply, online service providers need to post privacy policies and get parental consent before getting children’s personal information.
But it wasn’t until last year that the FTC updated its guidelines to better address the many avenues from which children consume content. The FTC greatly expanded the scope of the law’s coverage beyond website operators to include developers of mobile apps, games, and social networks directed at children under 13.
The FTC also stepped up enforcement. The social networking app Path last year agreed to pay $800,000 in civil penalties for collecting children’s personal information without parental consent, and Apple this year settled a case regarding children’s purchases from mobile apps without consent.
“The FTC has made it very clear that they pay particularly close attention to children’s online privacy,” said Julia Siripurapu, a lawyer who specializes in information privacy at Mintz Levin in Boston. “There’s a general consensus that parents need to be better informed about their children’s online information.”
WGBH was developing “Plum Landing” just as the FTC was updating its rules and cracking down on compliance. The all-digital, interactive format made the producers’ tasks more complicated, but they felt that it would allow WGBH to learn how to create content to fit changing media habits of children, said executive producer Kate Taylor.
Like a television show, the games and short webisodes have a back story and a narrative — Plum, for example, is an alien video game designer who wants to learn about Earth. But rather than watch long episodes on TV, children learn about science by playing games, watching short videos online, or making drawings.
The mobile app encourages kids to participate in a “photo hunt” and take pictures of the environment, such as signs of animal life, weather, or trash. However, the app can’t collect the location data from the child’s device since the FTC considers that identifying information.
Within the first few weeks of the launch of “Plum Landing,” PBS had broadcast more than 20 million video streams, mostly to mobile devices, and received tens of thousands of drawings in its online galleries. With a budget of under $5 million, much of which came from the National Science Foundation, “Plum Landing” cost a fraction of what a season of half-hour shows would cost to produce. The producers also created social media presences for “Plum Landing” to target parents and educators.
The project allows WGBH to fill a gap in environmental education by using modern tools, such as mobile phones, and encourage youngsters to get outside, Taylor said.
“The beauty with mobile is that you can take it outside and use it as a tool to guide you with exploration,” Taylor said. “We want kids to use media to experience the real thing.”