Furopean television is in transition and, as with any major life change, there are conflicting thoughts and emotions. Feeling the hot breath of competition from the launch of new privately owned broadcast outlets, the encroachment of new media and the invasion of foreign television services, some European broadcasters are naturally apprehensive about what change will bring. Others, accepting the new market conditions, have enthusiastically joined the fray.
Nowhere are these divergent reactions more pronounced than in the children’s sector, where sensitivities always run high.
A recent retreat in Germany provided some insight into this emerging drama and its many intricate subplots.
The meeting was organized by the Prix Jeunesse International, a children’s television festival that has been running for 33 years and has developed an intensely loyal following among the producers and broadcasters mostly publicly owned who know of it. The brainstorming session, intended to review the festival’s structure and to map out its future, lasted three days. It brought together 18 professionals from Europe, North America, South America and the Pacific Rim who work in production, broadcasting, education and journalism. What they had in common was a shared interest in promoting quality in children’s television.
This vitally important, but devilishly elusive goal ‘to seek out excellence in children’s television programming’ is the raison d’être of the Prix Jeunesse, and was at the heart of every exchange throughout the three-day retreat.
The PRIX JEUNESSE was founded by a group of German broadcasters and state and municipal authorities who wanted to create an international festival that would celebrate the best in children’s television programming. It is held every two years in Munich as a week-long event, filled with screenings, discussion groups, an awards gala and informal talks among professionals that go well into the night. The most recent Prix Jeunesse was held in June 1996 and attracted its highest-ever participation with 186 entries from 92 telecasters in 61 countries. More than 300 people attended.
But times are changing fast, and the festival’s secretary general, Ursula von Zallinger, recognizes that the Prix Jeunesse must adapt. The question is, how much?
An extreme view, representing a European hard line, is that the Prix Jeunesse is unique because it is not influenced by commercial interests. It is a platform for child-driven rather than market-driven programming and the festival should protect its definition of standards of excellence. This position advocates that the Prix Jeunesse continue as it is and make no concerted effort to welcome private-sector interests.
The other position, reflecting a mostly North American point of view, is that programming excellence should be determined on the basis of the product itself, and not its origin. Commercially supported, private-sector programming has an equal claim to excellence and should be encouraged to join the Prix Jeunesse celebration. The judging process will protect the festival’s uniqueness.
In fact, organizers emerged from the think tank with the decision that the Prix Jeunesse must reflect the changing media landscape, and for 1998, special efforts will be made to welcome works from private producers.
In its context, it is a brave step. But also an inevitable one. As von Zallinger well knows, to remain relevant, the Prix Jeunesse must be reflective of marketplace reality. Yet it must also address the legitimate and passionate concerns of those who fear that if you let the powerful in, they may eventually take over.
The Prix Jeunesse is not alone in this dilemma.