From The Muppets to Sesame Street to SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer, much of children's television programming has changed over time, drawing on various philosophies about learning, entertainment and the role visual media plays in child development. Today, The Digits, an interactive educational media series produced in Portland, brings some new ideas to several different screens near you.
Last month, I got the chance to watch the filming of an "appisode" of The Digits at a small production studio in Portland's St. Johns neighborhood. The Digits is a math and science educational web and app show for kids designed to be viewed on the computer or mobile devices like tablets and phones, hence the term "appisode." Created by writer and producer Scotty Iseri, the series harnesses the power of interactive media based on the premise that kids are naturally drawn to technology.
"I have nine nieces and nephews and if you give them a tablet, if you give them a phone, they just take to it and start playing with it," says Iseri from his studio. "They don't need instructions, they don't even want 'how-to's,' they really just dive right into whatever they're using."
The main characters in The Digits are a musical trio on a quest to win a mythical Battle of the Band competition and defeat a galactic ruler/record label mogul named "Doomfinger." In each episode, the colorful characters find themselves in dramatic situations which require them to use mathematical principles to solve problems. The trio also plays a musical number or two along the way.
"The main way to interact with The Digits is in our interactive 'appisodes,'" says an energetic Iseri. "It's a linear story with live-action video with interactive elements. All of the interactions are designed to teach a math curriculum. It's essentially a math app that actually teaches."
Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, Iseri explains that each story changes depending on the child's choices, which Iseri refers to as a "self-leveling narrative," so the story itself actually adjusts to support the child's level of understanding.
The inclusion of mobile technology in The Digits plays a key role in Iseri's underlying mission to support all children.
"There are studies out there that say that a low-income child is more likely to have access to a mobile device than to a desktop computer. It's really important to me and to us as a company that anyone can see our shows [and] can play our games."
While this is Iseri's first children's series, he is not new to the world of media production. In 2009, Iseri received national attention for an inventive web series called Scotty Got an Office Job that satirized the experience of his first time working in a corporate office environment. Iseri filmed the short, low-budget episodes using only a cellphone camera or a desktop webcam and often unbeknownst to his fellow office workers and supervisors who would appear as characters in the episodes.
"With Scotty Got an Office Job, I was shooting one episode a week and it was great to be able to get online and see the reactions to the videos and respond to them. That series really taught me about how to create material specifically for the web, how people watch things and how they share them with other people."
Iseri also says Scotty Got an Office Job and his collegiate studies in theater arts helped hone his sense of comedy, which The Digits uses as a way to connect with children.
"Kids like things that are funny," observes Iseri. "When it comes to comedy, there's a rhythm that is connected to it, whether it's the 'rule of threes' or what have you. There are certain ways that you construct a good joke and it's similar to the way that you construct a good story, which helps with how you might explain certain mathematical formulas to kids."
Production for season two of The Digits begins next summer with episodes premiering just in time for the school year.