Television E-junior Town is a new programme aimed at the zero to 14-year-old demographic, but can it have much appeal with such a broad base?
Television executives have a lot to answer for. As a child growing up in Australia, I was force-fed a diet of American sitcoms, and reruns at that. Shows such as The Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island and The Beverly Hillbillies were aired and re-aired in the 3pm to 5pm slot every weekday, just about the time millions of children were returning home from school. Marcia Brady's teenage angst, a group of dysfunctional adults stranded on a tropical isle in the middle of nowhere and a screeching granny toting a very un-politically correct rifle around a Hollywood mansion; we might not have understood them, but they certainly left an indelible mark on the under-10 brigade in my neighbourhood.
So much so that when I recently spotted a faux wood-panel car in Abu Dhabi, I couldn't help but remember the Brady Bunch's marathon trip to the Grand Canyon in their station wagon - a five-part special I've seen at least a dozen times. This is just one of the reasons why television executives have a lot to answer for: regardless of where I am in the world, I still remember the sitcoms of my youth - and, irritatingly - the lyrics to their theme songs. A few days after the car incident, the Brady Bunch theme was still playing in my head.
Rounding out our television "entertainment" was a host of cartoons: The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Tom and Jerry and all the Looney Tunes bunch: Bugs Bunny, Wile E Coyote and Road Runner, and Sylvester and Tweetie Bird. Compared with today, all were fairly crude in the animation stakes. And none of them were created with children in mind. The humour, and violence, were a reflection of the adult world.
Fast-forward to 2008, and what was once known simply as children's television has been rebranded as "edu-tainment". It brings with it a magical world of interaction and 3D animation, where the characters, and products that come with them, come to life in the very active imaginations of a sophisticated new audience. Backed by an army of educators, child specialists and psychologists, this approach to children's television has taken the genre to a level never seen before.
There is little chance that my daughter, Sancia, five, will discover the delights of the sitcoms of my formative years unless she stumbles upon them in later life in the twilight world of late-night cable television, where all sitcoms eventually go to die. Sancia's favourite shows - and toy box - are a reflection of millions of little girls around the world: Dora the Explorer, Jo Jo's Circus, Rolie Polie Olie and Angelina Ballerina, just to name a few. And anything featuring a princess.
So it was with interest that I learnt of a new show being broadcast on Etisalat's e-junior channel, a subsidiary of E-Vision. Called e-junior Town, it promised to take her out of her comfort zone and into a new world of interaction. According to the show's producers, e-junior Town is a first for the Emirates. An "interactive and entertaining weekly programme", it "caters exclusively to children in the UAE". The interaction is achieved through segments that feature e-mails, live telephone calls and home videos, and children win prizes if they feature in any one of these.
The first episode was screened a few weeks ago and Sancia and I watched it together. It started with promise. The opening jingle is catchy and caught Sancia's attention immediately (perhaps this runs in the family). The set is bright and colourful, and is based on a resort, complete with a fake palm tree and sun lounger. The hosts (Fraser Erikson from the UK and Hanan Ghaith from the UAE) introduced themselves, as well as an odd animated fish called Mr Bubbles, whose role is unclear. A bilingual show, Ghaith and Erikson swing between Arabic and English with ease. The pair lack the synergy of seasoned co-hosts, but hopefully they will become more relaxed as the show matures.
The 30-minute programme (actually, 21 minutes; the rest is made up of ad breaks) is broken down into a number of short segments. "E-mail" features two e-mails from viewers, one handled by Ghaith in Arabic and the other by Erikson in English. The e-mails in this episode dealt with viewers' questions about their favourite e-junior shows, serving as a handy plug for the channel to "remind" viewers when certain shows are airing. The senders each receive a pair of Crocs for their efforts.
"My Locker" is a short profile on a young Hollywood star. This episode featured Aria Wallace of Roxy Hunter fame. Sancia and I learnt that she has two cats and a goldfish and that her favourite quote is: "I love you all. Be happy and follow your dreams." "Kidding Around" is a story - presented by either of the hosts - that pertains to the UAE. Every month, this segment will focus on a different theme, which could include nature, the environment or the world of work. The episode we saw was about camels, and included an interview with an expert: a camel-owning Bedouin in Ras al Khaimah. It covered everything from the camel's long eyelashes ("to protect their eyes from sandstorms") to their teeth ("they can eat thorny bushes") and the fact that camels in the UAE only have one hump.
Finally, "My TV" is a fun outlet for budding filmmakers and aspiring stars to have their home movies featured on national television. Two videos are chosen each week; the ones we saw focused on karaoke-style singing. One little boy even forgot the words to his song, but it did not appear to phase him and he continued on valiantly. Unfortunately, Sancia lost interest after Mr Bubbles was introduced. While the aim of e-junior Town is admirable and the show has promise, it misses the mark for younger viewers.
"I don't like it," said Sancia. "I thought you said it would be fun, but it's not. It is for older kids." However, Fatiha Bensalem, e-junior's channel manager, says the programme is aimed at the zero to 14-year-old demographic. "It is appealing to all age groups," she says. "UAE kids don't have their own special programme. This is made for them and that is our inspiration." I doubt any parent would plonk their newborn in front of the telly to catch the latest episode of e-junior Town. However, proud as punch parents may want to send the show a video of junior doing something cute - which is possibly where the zero age factor comes into the picture.
The "tweens" and early teenagers should enjoy e-junior Town. But in the fickle world of children's television, no show can please everybody, especially the preschoolers. And that, as they say in the industry, is "edu-tainment". E-junior Town is broadcast every Thursday night before the movie block.