What Makes Masterchef Junior a Masterpiece?

Posted by Amy Henry on Wed, Nov 20, 2013 @ 02:36 PM

Masterchef Jr.Now that it’s over, it seems the right time to reflect upon the first season of Masterchef Junior Fox’s reality competition show might seem like an unexpected winner to some, but we could have predicted its power. In our second issue of the YouthBeat TrendSpotter, we listed “Kid Cuisine” as a sign of the times. We know that this cohort of youth have grown up with a greater interest in food than any before them. They are exposed to more cuisines, groomed with more refined palettes, and are increasingly indoctrinated that quality matters much more than quantity.

Still, when we saw Masterchef Junior heavily promoted on our On Demand menus, we were skeptical. Right before Masterchef Junior first aired, Rachel Ray and Guy Fieri hosted young chefs for a special episode of their own reality show, Rachael vs. Guy: Kids Cook-Off. The results were hardly appetizing. We love kids of all kinds, but these young chefs preened for the camera. They seemed skilled, for sure, but they didn’t seem comparable to adults (and before Masterchef Junior, would we have expected them to be?). These young reality chefs seemed too contrived for kids to care about, and yet not interesting enough to engage adults. We were left feeling like we’d been hooked by a gimmick, with kids dangled as the bait.

But, perhaps due to professional integrity more than authentic interest, we tuned in for Masterchef Junior. We were on the lookout for the typical kid-in-adult-context pitfalls. Would they be overly precocious? Think National Spelling Bee, which we love once a year, but in weekly doses! Being out-spelled by a 12 year old is one thing, but how many adults would tune in to be “food-shamed”? And on the flipside, we feared the cloyingly sweet children that sometimes appear in shows made for adults but about kids. But the third possibility was truly the most terrifying: Gordon Ramsey of a show called Hell’s Kitchen would be a judge.

The result: a pleasant surprise. So what made this morsel a meal that “tastes like more”?

  1. Humble Pie. Time Magazine writer, James Poniewozik, contributed his list of five reasons why Masterchef Junior worked to the pile of rave reviews from critics. We’d like to borrow one of his sentiments here. In a culture in which adults often steal and stay in the spotlight based on bad behavior (MasterChef, Real Housewives of Anywhere, NFL bullies), we have come to expect shows studded with bullies. But in Masterchef Junior, even Gordon Ramsey minds his manners. More than that – he’s nice. All three judges are. And, there’s nothing more entertaining than watching someone who is sour turn sweet. All three judges treat the contestants with more than professional respect – they treat them like their children.
  2. Taking the Cake. It’s not an easy task to create a show in which the coaches are kind, but the competition is still sharp. And that’s what happens here. These kids come to cook, and the stakes are high – $100,000 for the winner. Not to mention a trophy, and we know how kids love trophies! But in Masterchef Junior, the challenges are real and the strategizing significant. One player has a “target” on his back throughout the competition, yet his cast mates continue to support and comfort him when his cake comes out less ideal than planned. This kind of drama makes for great co-viewing, as parents and youth get caught up in the competition.
  3. Kids’ Cup of Tea. One of the reasons why watching a program that subjects kids and tweens to such intense competition is something we can bear is that it’s crystal clear that these kids love it. They are engaged in what psychologist Mihaly Czikscentmihalyi refers to as “flow”: (to paraphrase) the experience of being so thoroughly immersed in an activity or pursuit that you lose all track of time. The youth participating in Masterchef Junior are clearly not just there because mom and dad signed them up. They are invested and intrinsically motivated in a way that allows them (and us) to tolerate critiques – because they are committed to mastery and perfection. Because this passion is theirs, we want to see where they take it. Their enthusiasm for their work is contagious, and it’s one of the keys to Masterchef Junior’s success.
  4. Surviving Spilled Milk. Even these culinary wizards make mistakes. Alexander, the series star right from the onset, mistakes sugar for flour. Parents and other adults suddenly feel less inadequate. As in adult competition shows, even the best and the brightest miscalculate, overreach, overcomplicate or underestimate sometimes. But what makes it different watching these kids is that we know how hard it is, and how important it is to foster resilience in youth. It’s the difference between successful, healthy children and those who are not, according to most psychologists. Call it bounce-back, GRIT, or even “Fishful Thinking” (as the Goldfish brand has), but however you label it, you know it when you see it. These kids not only recover, but they do so with determination, tenacity, and grace. We love these “characters” not only because they can cook – but because they keep going when it gets hot in the kitchen.
  5. Eating their Hearts Out. Finally, in a culture in which the relationship between kids and food has often been demonized, this show suggests that there’s a new way to frame it. Sure, kids are often known to gain joy from “junk” food, to indulge in insufficient fuel, but Masterchef Junior considers another possibility – can kids learn to love and respect food? Certainly, not every kid will become a foodie (no more than every adult has). Many critics of the show noted an over-representation of kids from California and New York City among the cast. But this show also makes it possible that kids might care about food. Perhaps giving them a bit more credit and some skills in the kitchen could help them get more curious about foods of all types (even the healthy stuff).

When it comes to this kids’ competition show, we suggest indulging, but also incorporating the lessons learned into the brands, products and content that you serve up to youth.

Tags: food, menu, reality tv, TV, culture

The Next American – Managers?

Posted by Amy Henry on Fri, Jul 20, 2012 @ 08:48 AM

148278915A few weeks ago, on an NBC primetime special spanning two summer nights, viewers watched while Justin Bieber caused chaos in cities around the world, just by showing up. This was no surprise. But what may have been a more insightful sign of the times was what we saw happen when the “behind the scenes” crew encountered the crowd – chaos. Okay, so it wasn’t Bieber-brand pandemonium, but it was the kind of reception that another A-list celebrity might find satisfying. Justin’s manager, stylist, musical director and PR person were greeted with authentic appreciation, not just anticipation for the star who they brought to the party.

In youth culture today, the finders’ gain much more than a fee…They get their own chance at fame. Simon Cowell may have paved the way for the producer-turned-celebrity, but even established rockers are finding that selecting or showcasing the next star might make them more relevant than releasing a new single. From J. Lo and Steven Tyler (who was hardly top-of-mind among today’s teens before he chose Idol as his latest gig), who leveraged temporary stints as talent scouts on American Idol into fresh fame, to Justin Bieber’s own “pay-it-forward” tweets to introduce the world to Carly Rae Jepson (and her often imitated hit “Call Me Maybe”) and most recently, 13-year-old Madison Beer, today’s biggest stars know that using their platform to promote others brings the spotlight back to them.  And today’s tweens and teens are used to meeting the momager behind the celebrity (think Kris Kardashian). But what does this tell us about what youth want from their stars?

  • First, they expect altruism alongside talent.  A Twitter account is not meant for only self-promotion, but for propping up a voice in need of visibility.
  • Second, they see celebrity as a business, and know the ones who make it happen are as important as the ingénue. Contrary to what is sometimes said about this generation, they know that fame requires effort – but they also know it takes a team.
  • And finally, they want recommendations from the curators of their choice. This cohort has grown up expecting that every website they visit, every purchase they make comes with a follow-up recommendation for something else they might like.

Tags: reality tv, kids tweens teens, music, culture, Justin Bieber

The Real World

Posted by Amy Henry on Thu, Sep 16, 2010 @ 01:27 PM

It might seem that we’re a bit enamored with MTV right now. And that might be accurate.

Not the Jersey Shore variety – this Jersey girl can’t bear to watch her beloved Garden State reduced to an unseemly stereotype (or perhaps it’s just that it’s not all that interesting?). But if we could have created any show on TV right now, it would probably be MTV’s If You really Knew Me. And file “Challenge Day,” the organization at the center of this show, under brilliant ideas we wish were ours.If You Really Knew Me

The challenge that’s central to the show is, “Can one day change a high school?” Through the camera, we meet five key characters and hear their stories. These self-aware teens begin by revealing, in a pretty profound introduction to the half hour show, how they are “known.” Nerd, jock, even stoner – these are a few of the labels that teens (girls and boys) use to describe themselves. And then we get to know their real stories.

MTV has taken on bullying as its issue of the moment. And while our recent data shows that today’s youth don’t site bullying or aggression or violence as one of their top concerns (in fact, it falls quite close to the bottom of the many things on their minds), we know that the emotional lives of teens are, as perhaps they always have been, fragile. Beyond offenses that teens commit on each other, these teens remind us that the complexity of the human experience starts young. Many of the “characters” on the show have already experienced hurt, pain and loss that rivals most adults. And this is what they bring to the school cafeteria with them every day.

Challenge Day looks a bit more like group therapy. We see teens exposed, but in a way that feels raw and real versus contrived and camera-aware. It certainly doesn’t feel for show when a teen boy tells of a father who cut off his relationship with him for no reason. Or a black teen – who identifies himself as the only black student in the school – admits that the racially charged jokes that his teammates on the basketball team often make, are not something he feels comfortable with afterall.

To call this entertaining is a bit of a stretch. As a mom (albeit of a very pre-pre-pre-adolescent), it’s heartbreaking. As someone who has dedicated her recent past to research with kids, tweens and teens, it’s both validating and eye-opening. It’s a reminder of the vulnerability that often lives behind the most seemingly confident teen. It’s a push to see our “subjects” as having a history that lives long before they enter the focus group facility. And it’s eye-opening to see how open these sometimes cynical teens are to the kind of reflection that we might assume requires a maturity beyond their years.

Perhaps what’s most interesting is that while we look to research to help us understand the teen psyche, we might have some examples that – while being edited and produced – start to show us a different, deeper side of today’s adolescent. And it challenges us to question our own simple frameworks and definitions of what this group is – or who they really are.

Tags: kids, If You Really Knew Me, Teens, reality tv, TV, tweens, MTV