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Maestro of 'Media Madness'

Media seriously targets kids, so Dominic Ali wrote a fun defence manual.

Scott Deveau 29 Mar 2005TheTyee.ca
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At 33 years of age, Dominic Ali watches ‘Sesame Street’, listens to Britney Spears, and reads Ellegirl magazine. He hides these guilty pleasures behind the guise of “research” for his new children’s book.

Ali, who works in communications at the David Suzuki Foundation and freelances for CBC Radio, says he prefers reading the Economist to teeny mags, but one gets a sense that he’s protesting too much.

The author of Media Madness: An Insiders Guide to Media, which hit bookshelves earlier this month, admits to being star-struck meeting the executive producer of Sesame Street at a party in New York a few years ago. So much so, the encounter acted as the catalyst for him to write his new book, which aims to de-mystify media for kids.

Schlock and awe

“I met (the producer) and I was in awe… I was thinking, ‘If I were working on Sesame Street now, what would kids need to know that they didn’t know when I was growing up?’ The answer was media,” Ali said. “I thought it would be cool to have these characters that take them into that world.”

Ali’s 64-page book, published by Kids Can Press, follows Max McLoon, an anthropomorphized teenaged loon, through the backdoors of newspaper and magazine newsrooms, record companies, television stations, comic books and video game production companies. The book itself has the feel of a fast-flipping comic book, thanks to illustrator Michael Cho.

(As a scientific experiment, a copy of Media Madness was casually left in range of a nine-year-old focus group of one. Her nose was quickly buried in the book, and stayed there until she was called for dinner by a Tyee editor.)

Media Madness, which is intended for 9 to 14 year olds, not only illustrates how media is created and by whom, but it also addresses the commercial interest behind those products. The book is filled little tidbits and interesting facts that even those in the media business are unaware of (trust me).

Full time job

At the same time as Media Madness hit shelves, an American research group released a study that showed American kids now spend more than a quarter of each day in front of the TV, listening to music, watching DVDs or surfing the net.

Youth spent six hours and 21 minutes a day sopping up media, compared to a mere hour and a half doing physical activity and less than an hour doing homework. Sixty per cent of those surveyed watch TV while eating dinner and more than two thirds have a TV in their bedroom.

That’s more time kids spent with media than six years ago – but only by two minutes. There being only so many waking hours in a day, researchers believe the average young person may be reaching a cap on the amount of time they can devote to media. But the study also found that more kids were using multiple media sources and calculated the total exposure in a given day to media at eight and a half hours for the average 8 to 18 year old.

“For kids today, media is a full-time job,” Ali said

Don’t blame games

Media Madness is not a kiddy-No Logo. The book handles the media business with a light touch and an instructive tone, showing how things actually work rather than perpetuating an anti-consumer ideology. And personally, Ali does not necessarily buy into common arguments against the media.

“It’s easy to blame video games for encouraging violence, but if you look historically, that’s what they said about rock and roll and what they said about jazz before that,” Ali said.

And indeed the American survey found that the kids that consumed the most media were also the ones that were the most active in physical activities, held the most hobbies, and spent the most amount of time with their families. And those who watch the most TV also reported reading no less than those who watch less.

Media Madness playfully uses Dickens-esque names to describe the media’s various characters (a reporter named Scoop Emgud, a publisher named Mayka Z. Bucks, an editor named Hackett Tubitz, et al). Ali asks kids to use “the Big Six” questions when they look at media, to determine who created the message, for whom and why. It also encourages kids to think about the content of the message. For example, why there are no black characters on ‘Friends’, Ali said.

“It’s so easy to media bash, but where do we get our news from? I love music. I love magazines. I love playing video games. So many people in the public, and especially kids, just don’t know how it’s put together or that there is generally a commercial agenda behind it,” Ali said.

Addictively slick

The most striking thing Ali said he found while “researching” for Media Madness, is just how “slick” kids’ products are.

“It’s good! For these big media entertainment companies, they can always run (their products) by a focus group and make it really slick. It’s blown me away.

“The other thing that blew me away is just how commercial it is. The audience is constantly being bombarded with images in a way, I think, adults aren’t,” Ali said.

Twenty minutes of trailers before a Disney DVD or a personal endorsement for label-mates of Britney Spears at the end of one her albums just seep into the content and, as an untrained consumer, a child takes it in unfiltered, he says.

“Most of the media that kids are exposed to, from magazines to movies to video games, comes from a corporate marketing agenda. One of the things that is difficult for anyone to understand is, I have TV, I’m not going for my wallet, I’m not feeding quarters into the TV, so how is a media company making money off this?” Ali says his book attempts to answer that by making the economic connections for kids. “We kinda bridge what media someone experiences everyday and tying that into how the industry is actually run,” Ali said.

Media Madness is available on Amazon.ca and at various bookstores in Vancouver.

Scott Deveau is on staff at The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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