The angry voice of the British National Voice of the Viewer and Listener Association has frequently been heard on the subject of violence on adult television, but children’s shows are protected in Britain by a halo of producer good intention and self-regulation.
Recognizing that live action is more worrying for children than cartoons, the BBC issues advice to its suppliers, based on the two long-running drama series, Grange Hill and Byker Grove. ‘There is evidence,’ says the producer’s guidelines document, ‘that violence in circumstances resembling real life is more upsetting than violence in a fantasy setting. Children may feel particularly distressed when violence occurs in a familiar setting or between familiar figures.’ It g’es on to acknowledge that, ‘the dangers of imitation are particularly real among children . . . a blow to the head must not, in a realistic setting, be seen as a trivial matter without serious consequences.’
Matthew Robinson, creator and former executive producer of Byker Grove, aimed at ages 11 to 16, believes violence in children’s drama must be used sparingly and ‘with relevance to the story. It must have a very strong justification. Obviously there are parameters laid down by the BBC, but for me it’s a personal thing and I feel far more strongly about violence on screen than sex.’ Byker Grove, which has never shied away from an issue (most famously a ‘gay kiss’ which provoked some adult outrage), has just ended its seventh series with the prosecution of a main character for mugging a pensioner.
Robinson was careful that the portrayal of the attack was as a police reconstruction: ‘There was a knife involved, but it was never seen in a aggressive context.’
Lesley Oakden, head of young people’s programs at Tyne Tees Television, says there is ‘continual concern with producers and broadcasters about the effects of television on children,’ but, more important is the quality, range and diversity of the programming. ‘Of course we have to keep an eye on what’s going on – addressing issues responsibly is different from filming people having a punch-up – but most producers in this country are in the game of making good programs for children.’
Demand for regulation of children’s programming is confined mainly to the parents and teachers groups who spoke out vociferously against the influence Saban’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers had on the nation’s karate-kicking youth. The broadcaster, GMTV, which holds the ITV network breakfast franchise, immediately began issuing warnings around the show, which appeased the network’s regulatory body, the ITC.
Recent worries about the effects of screen violence on children have centered on the problem of unsupervised viewing. All the British networks conform to the 9 p.m. watershed, before which it is assumed that children may be watching and material is toned down appropriately. After that time though, the viewing public is considered to be fair game. Again, the ITC, while addressing this issue, has taken a back seat by placing the onus of responsibility onto the parent to regulate the child’s viewing.