Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Different Take on the Today Show and the Newbery/Caldecott Winners

Don't get mad at me, but I'm having a hard time being angry with the Today show for not having the Newbery and Caldecott winners on this year. Am I disappointed? Yes, I am - I love seeing children's literature get attention, and I think our field's big award winners deserve it. I'm also glad that advocates in our field are speaking out about the lack of attention children's literature gets. But...

I may be wrong about this, of course, but I think that IF this segment had been a big success for the Today show in the past, they'd've run it again this year. Wouldn't you? So, my thinking is that there's a problem and that it's not personal. It's business.

And honestly, having seen the Today segment in question many times over the years... well... from my point of view, it's usually not good TV. And if I ran a TV show, that would be a problem for me.

Not only that, but let's face the fact that no other network morning show has featured the ALA award winners (or has had a book club for kids) over the past few years nor did they step into the gap this year. It was great that the Today show did this segment in the past, but clearly, something changed for them. The lack of other networks diving in again says to me that this type of segment, for whatever reason, doesn't work for them, either.

Those of us who love children's literature should try to figure out what has changed and/or why this doesn't work, and then figure out how to overcome that obstacle.
 
I think one challenge we face here is that while the ALA awards are big news to all of us, unlike the Oscars, Grammys or even the People's Choice Awards, there's not a national audience of millions for the awards nor weeks of public speculation about who might win. Sure, we all talk about it, and some schools do, too, but it doesn't create the same level of buzz.

As a result, when the winners are announced, it's not "news" on the same level as those other awards, so there's no built in audience for a segment on the morning shows. Is this sad because books and authors should be news? Yes. Should we try to change that culture? Yes. But that doesn't mean we should expect others to do something that doesn't make sense to their business, for whatever reason.

Yet here's something we all know first hand: there is a hunger among parents and teachers and kids and grandparents and uncles and aunts for information about good books. I suspect the Today show knows this, too.

The question then is this: what other way can our books and/or award winners be presented to make for better TV, to make it more than anchors interviewing authors and illustrators about books that usually aren't yet part of the public conscience (though will be over time)? Our field is vibrant, influential, and about more than awards, so what should we do?

Maybe we can find an incredibly charismatic author who can talk about bigger children's lit stories than just the winners... to somehow give context and/or resonance? Can we uncover and present stories of kids in action with a book or books? Can we get an energetic bookseller talking about all sorts of amazing books from the year? Can we get Ashley Bryan to lead the entire Today staff in poetry call and response or have past award winners/best sellers use their "celebrity" or or or or? (I mean, honestly - having JK Rowling talk with the award winners is very different TV than having Matt Lauer do it.)

Clearly, I don't know the answer, as my above examples prove. But I'm positive that if we want to focus on things like network coverage for our field, we need to think out of the box here, because the message I take from the Today show is that the "box" doesn't work for them. It's painful and sad... very... but let's take this moment as one of opportunity and see what we can come up with.

We're creative types, after all!

29 comments:

Rosemary Marotta said...

I agree with you Greg, the more I thought about it the more I thought it just wasn't cost effective to have the winners on. Besides it was a very busy news cycle last week. I know people in the book community are upset because Snooki got air time but she apparently is in the midst of her 15 minutes of fame....

Gregory K. said...

I also don't think it's an either/or thing in terms of Snooki. Unfortunate timing with her as a guest, perhaps, but unrelated, I'm sure.

And yes, I suspect the segment was expensive, but if it got big buzz or ratings, they'd swallow the expense happily. To me, another sign it wasn't working.

Laurie L Young said...

Very thoughtful post, Greg. You raise great questions and I have to agree that no company is obligated to continue a practice that does not make money or contribute to their business. Of course I wish the Today show had run the segment anyway, maybe to build national interest in the books and support reading. But that is their business. I will be thinking about the questions you raised for a while . . .

Madigan McGillicuddy said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Greg!
I'll never forget the year Susan Patron and David Weisner won, and the entire interview seemed to consisted of the hosts sputtering, "So, you've written a book, and it's WORDLESS. It's a book WITHOUT words! How is this possible?" The concept was clearly completely blowing their minds. Sad.

BOB BOYLE said...

As usual, a very smart take, Greg.

At the moment, our culture is more enamored with celebs than books. Not a bad idea to try combining the two in some way.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

You're definitely on to something here, Greg. There's a bit of difference, too, between literary awards and other media awards - it's as though literary award are given to books that should be popular and media awards are given to stars/songs/movies that already have been deemed popular by the public. Hence the inherent difference in "draw" of audience.

But this needn't be so, and I think you hit on it with your "charismatic" author idea. I look at Michio Kaku, a physicist that has practically revolutionized the idea of science TV by creating Sci-Fi Science. He's appealing, the ideas are appealing, and he's packaged it in a way that draws viewers. That takes a potentially deadly dry topic (science) and makes it pull people in. We need someone to do that for children's books.

Nominations? :)

Rasco from RIF said...

A thoughtful post, Greg, but I differ with you. It is competition and a business proposition pure and simple in my experience. Even the best spokesperson among authors and illustrators will not be able to compete with Snooki, but it is not just Snooki - I mean look at Brian Williams this past week showing a feature on "Baby Bats in Blankets" and yet, the piece didn't even tell why the baby bats on the screen in front of us were in blankets...it was simpy a headline grabber the majority of their viewers would rather see than something about libraries closing, children's scores in reading in the USA compared to other countries. I don't think we can sit by and allow "news" shows to get by without showing what some of the rest of us feel important, even if we don't like the interviews themselves....we won't have control over that part. Advertisers need to hear our voices, and the "buzz" about being left out is one way of planting those seeds..

Colleen said...

This is an interesting take and I agree there is some sort of a business bit behind the decision - although I would hesitate to see how they could quantify the success of the segment (are people really going to change the channel if bored by the ALA winners getting 5 minutes of their time?).

BUT - your bigger point is dead on in that it is kind of lame to have the TODAY hosts speaking on this anyway as they don't know anything about it. It would be like Snooki interviewing Hillary Clinton - all she could ask are the most general of questions because she doesn't know anything about the topic. So you would need someone versed in publishing on some level to lead this discussion.

I do think though that it is a worthy topic to the general public. Pretty much every bookstore has a special section for Newbery winners and a list of Caldecotts and those medals are on the covers for a reason. While there might not be hyper awareness outside the industry there is still awareness (whenever a book gets banned the first thing you see in the subsequent articles is that it was an award winner). So I think folks would like to know this - they just need to have the info framed in a smart and accessible and entertaining way.

Question is, how does that happen?

Gregory K. said...

Carol - I don't think we differ. I do think there are ways to pitch stories that make them more entertaining. I don't know HOW, exactly, with the Newbery's but I do think think it's possible. Because I agree it's a business scenario for the TV shows. I also agree we need to speak with our dollars and advertisers should hear the buzz... but that's not the same as saying that NBC should've run the same segment again. Or it's not the same to me!

Gregory K. said...

Colleen - that's actually not my bigger point. My bigger point was that for many reasons, the current format was bad TV. And I'm sure they can quantify different things about every segment (online buzz, phone calls, comments, who knows?). They've been doing this same segment long enough, they obviously had a sense of it not working, don't you think?

I do agree that the well known awards give an edge to making something "newsworthy" but by themselves, clearly they're not enough. I'm not sure how they take that next step, but I do think we need to be thinking that way instead of being angry.

Angela Craft said...

This has been my feeling from the start of the "TODAY bumps Newbery winners!" buzz. First of all, perhaps this is because I was hearing it on Twitter, there seemed to be a lot of misrepresentation - it was sounding like the Newbery/Caldecott winners had been scheduled but were dumped at the last minute in favor of Snooki. Clearly that wasn't the case - the winners were never booked. The segment wasn't bumped in favor of Snooki; the segment was removed entirely.

It seems very clearly to be a business decision. You don't break with a tradition without a compelling reason - and a segment that continually isn't working for them is pretty compelling in TV terms. I don't know how to make it snazzier TV, without turning the ALA award process into some sort of bizarre reality show (librarians win immunity challenges to keep their favorite book in the running for a medal!). That's a terrifying thought. It was great to see kidlit get some mainstream attention, but clearly the hosts weren't that well informed, which certainly doesn't help our cause overall.

Amy LV said...

I am very interested in discussing the question, "How do we invite a greater circle of people into the world of children's literature?" We're already here, but I do believe that others would come along if they knew how much these books have to give. Maybe we need some sort of PR campaign, generating buzz about people's favorite books from their own childhoods and taking it from there...

tanita davis said...

Ah, Greg, the voice of sanity at all times. I agree with you; the coverage was always a bit ...embarrassing. It wasn't as if the reporters had read the book, generally they got a name or a title wrong, they had poor questions/comments about it, and it was just hackneyed and awkward. Definitely better for us to figure out how to make the ALA more important to the average person than to complain that our four minutes in the "sun" are gone.

Alex said...

Even though I think the Today Show was wrong to cancel the Newbery segment, I also think Snooki is symptomatic of a bigger problem.
Tanita is right - the coverage is often embarassing. And others are right when they suggest better PR.
Maybe the Today Show sho hire a kid book reporter who knows what s/he is doing for YA author interviews, or bette, send them to the Newbery announcements, and get on the spot interviews that can be edited for the next day.
Or readers can take the bull by the horns and have Newbery parties in different places celebrating the winners on the weekend after the announcement.
People like to watch kids doing things and parties get media attention if they are big and popular enough. The trick is always to make your product desirable - then everyone wants it.

Cheryl said...

I agree with you, Greg, about the business angle. It's important to think about WHY we kidlit people wanted to see the winners on the Today Show too. I suspect part of it is validation -- our moment in the sun, our chance to be famous on the national stage like (sigh) Snooki -- and a lot of the anger around this has come from having that validation denied this year. (Which, indeed, is too bad.) And I love all your ideas for making books more attractive to the national news audience. (What about a celebrity read-aloud, where they get Drew Barrymore, say, to do a LeVar Burton and read a whole book on the air?)

But especially in years when the winners are unfamiliar, I think another part of our desire to see them onscreen is just the chance to get to know these bookmakers a little more. And that's something we could organize ourselves, with just as much insight & interest (or more) than the Today Show ever provided. For instance, is Ms. Vanderpool's local librarian or a writing partner in the kidlitosphere? Maybe s/he could interview her on video and put it up on YouTube, and we could all pass it around, being especially sure all our teacher & librarian friends know about it in order to promote the books. Or would the Steads do a Livestream show & show sketches of the art, say, as well as talking about The Call, all while taking questions from other kidlitters? Or a Twitter chat just devoted to interviewing and celebrating these people? There are lots of things WE can do that don't necessarily equal the same exposure nationally, but might give some satisfaction to us, and WE can make them happen -- which is also satisfying.

Rasco from RIF said...

First, a dose of anger never hurt in promoting change. There is not going to be a segment on the Today Show that meets the kid lit needs as expressed in these comments - the only way the Today Show will change the previous format is to be offered something like being with the committee when calls made, being in a classroom a week or two in advance that had a Mock Newberry or Caldecott and then returning to the clasroom to see them when announcement made with no assurance of course they will have picked the winner. The segment is going to be short, has to be punchy...I bet you with the right person pitching the filming and showing of the Committee call could work. We tried to pitch for fun some different shows this week just to see what would "sell" for these awards and it is going to take more creativity than has been discussed. Anchors are not going to read the books, they will read their briefings as they talk on air...why can't the authors be invited to Al Roker's segment if his kids' book clus is as revered as I have seen among some on twitter? I personally haven't met that many kids who pay attention to his book club but who knows?

Gregory K. said...

Again, Carol, I agree with you both about anger and about creativity in pitching ideas. I mean, if it were easy to get on the morning shows, everyone would do it. Heck, it's not even easy to have access to pitch and be heard.

Still, we are a creative field with a lot of interesting thinkers and some star power, not to mention awards that are well known (even if they don't nail the morning show demographic). We know a lot about telling a good story, so we need to apply those skills to this problem.

Of course, "we" ultimately needs a champion/focal point like the ALA or the awards, and that's a challenge, too. I like Cheryl's idea that we can also work within our own community in ways we haven't yet. Outreach, broadening the community, spreading the word, sharing info, taking care of what we can take care of in whatever ways we can.

As noted, I don't know clear answers, but I do know we should be thinking about what else we can do, and I love doing that collectively.

Alexis said...

I agree with Carol (Rasco) that the whole process needs to be more visually attractive if we want people to pay attention (heck -- if *I* want to pay attention! Talking heads doesn't make for compelling TV) And getting young readers more involved in the excitement of the announcements, etc. would be something I would watch for sure. I'm glad this buzz is happening. Thanks Greg, for a compelling post

Carmela Martino said...

I was contemplating some of these very things even before seeing your post, Greg. I kept thinking that there had to be a way to pitch the award announcements to make them interesting, along the lines of what Alex suggests, by finding a way to create suspense about the winners. There are so many possible angles. For example, this year we had several "dark horse" and first-time winners in various ALA categories. Maybe the announcement should include the Printz winner, since YA lit seems to attract more buzz in general media circles lately.
But I still wonder--why don't newspapers or TV news programs at least announce the winners, the way they they announce the winners of the Pulitzer or the Nobel prizes? Since the ALA sends out the press releases, maybe they need a better PR firm, or they need to get their current PR people to "think outside the box."

Amy Baskin said...

Great points, Greg. I absolutely agree that we need to think of this from a business angle (even though I'm one of many who sent an indignant letter to TODAY,asking for an explanation. Hey- I also light both a Menorah and a Christmas tree. Why choose just one approach?)

Here's an idea to pitch to TODAY: hire the same drunk man who punched Snooki in the face in Season 1 to come and punch Vanderpool and Stead in the face- live. I hear Snooki's appearance fees quadrupled after that. And could I get him to punch me in the face, too, while we're at it?

Trina said...

Is it just me? Maybe. I have no desire to see the winners on the today show or any other show. I like to pick on Snooki, but other than that I don't really care who they have on the Today show.

I loved books when I was a child. Loved them. Heck, I love them now. Never did I need to see books or authors lauded on TV to understand their value. In fact, they were something distinct from TV and all that television had to offer. They weren't celebrities, they were authors. To me authors were always people who should be celebrated, but not in the ways that "celebrities" are celebrated because, let's face it, we don't really celebrate celebrities. No one celebrates Snooki.

Do books and authors need television ratings?

Rosemary Marotta said...

Someone suggested a book reporter which made me think....the Today show does have Jenna Bush who is very tied to books....as far as the Al Roker Book club is concerned I have always felt it was just something for young parents to appreciate or use, he always seems to pick books that are already selling or are popular. It is also not really geared toward kids, but then again most bookselling isn't. Kids do not have disposable income and must rely on other's to buy them things. If they are given money or gift cards then maybe they will buy a book...but that is rare. Books for kids on TV has never been priority unless a celebrity has written it or it is a blockbuster like HP or Twilight. Even Oprah failed when she tried to recommend a children's book. I wish I had the answer on how to make the world realize that children's book s are not just for children, that they have value beyond a small group of people. The best we can do is have discussions and brainstorming sessions like these in the hope that someday there will be a breakthrough.

Julie Hedlund said...

I so agree with you! My first reaction to the news was that the Today Show is simply giving viewers what the producers think they want. If they don't want stories about award-winning children's book authors and their books, that is more troublesome to me than the fact that the spot got cut.

And it is up to us, in the industry, to change that somehow.

Lee Wind said...

Great angle on the discussion, Greg. Now you've got me thinking...
Darn you!
Namaste,
Lee

Pen and Ink said...

Personally I think there should be an ALA or Caldecott Award show on Public TV and Cookie Monster should present the awards... Oh wait last time Cookie Monter Presented at the Emmy's - he ate the award and no one ever found out who won.

Ms. Yingling said...

Television is all about selling. I don't watch morning shows, but maybe what they need is a librarian to go on and sell the books to the audience. That's what we do every day, after all!

Janet Fox said...

This is such a smart post, Greg. I think it speaks to the fact that we are creating a product but are not clever about promoting it - and I don't mean in a crass fashion. "Books" and "authors" just aren't very exciting next to the latest MTV or movie celebrity. But, do we really want to compete at that level? With photoshopped People spreads and rehab exposures? In all honesty, do we think the Today Show audience will run out and buy the winners' books after seeing the spot? You really have me thinking: how do we create interest in our books without showboating?

Carmela Martino said...

Greg, you might be interested: SLJ has an article today about the Facebook campaign to get the award winners on the show. (I happen to be quoted in it.) See:
http://tinyurl.com/4te3h2b

Denise Doyen said...

Greg,
Obviously, I'm late to the party here... and while I agree with you about the probable reasons for the cancellation, I don't agree that 1. We kidlit folk shouldn't be MAD and let TODAY know it. And 2. That the way to better television is so inchoate.

GEEZ. They should insist on better preparation by their segment producer. A television graphics roll of the best spreads from the winning Picture Book would be screen-sexy. And the ALA (or we kidiit folk with showbiz backgrounds) should help the newly shocked and perhaps camera-shy winners prep the day/night before (skyping makes it possible these days.)

TODAY is a news organization and it prides itself in delivering quality content (here and there). The Caldecott and Newbery winners and their worthy books were a long-running quality segment for the show for the last decade. They SHOULD be embarrassed that they opted instead for Matt asking Snooki to define weenis and badunk for America over coffee. Besides Snooki's demographic is still comatose at 8am in the morning! But, who's up making sandwiches for lunch bags? Moms and Dads that's who. And they ARE interested in children's books.

That the segment could use some better prep or coaching and perhaps a helpful graphic or two for zip is NOT a reason to dump it entirely.

If in addition, we can figure out ways to promote kidlit through the high profile, charismatic authors in our ranks -- YEP we should. But I sent my DISAPPOINTED comment to the TODAY show because they DO read and respond to viewer complaints and suggestions. So I think its worth dropping a well-worded note.

http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/29055142

Scroll to Comment Box at bottom.

Always glad to see your thoughtful discussion-leading here Greg.