In a series of columns leading up to the Second World Summit on Television for Children in March, Anna Home, OBE, the retired head of BBC Children’s Television and the chair of the summit, discusses some of the issues facing producers and broadcasters of children’s television.
* * *
I have just stepped down as head of children’s television at the BBC, a department with a proud tradition. When I joined the BBC in the 1960s, children’s television was domestically produced for national consumption. In Britain, children were fortunate to be provided with a wide mixture of programs made specifically for them-magazines, documentaries, entertainment, drama and acquired programs, both live action and animation. But over the last 20 years, the world of children’s television has changed beyond recognition and is now showing some worrying trends.
Throughout the world, public service broadcasters now compete for audience share with increasingly available satellite and cable channels. Many of the niche children’s channels broadcast most of the day, and the majority of their programming is animation or live action made in North America.
Nobody would argue with the fact that there are positive things to be gained from children having an international perspective. Common awareness and understanding should help underpin the philosophy of the 21st century. But most satellite and cable-delivered channels are part of multinational conglomerates that combine production, distribution, merchandising and licensing. The result is that national and local programming in all parts of the world are having to do battle with global programming.
The danger in this global scenario is that indigenous culture, and especially children’s culture, may get lost. In many parts of the developing world, children are moving straight from radio to Disney or Fox without ever having experienced any television that specifically reflects their own particular cultures.
In the Philippines and in many parts of Africa and South America, for example, program-makers struggle to create programs that are culturally relevant to their children, while the broadcasters, even public service broadcasters, are happy to buy cheap, ratings-winning imports by the meter.
At the Voice of the Listener and Viewer conference in London earlier this year, Michael Forte, Carlton’s controller of children’s television, described this scenario as ‘blanket-bombing . . . the broadcasting equivalent of plutonium dumping.’
At best, animation is an art form, but at worst, it is crude and simplistic: armies of superheroes indistinguishable from one another, most of them exceedingly politically correct. Many of the series come with moral messages-sometimes literally tacked on to the end-so that they cannot be missed by regulators or concerned parents. However, there is little real characterization or complexity of narrative.
Leading child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim argues in his book The Uses of Enchantment that children learn about life through stories. In order to develop, children need stories of fantasy; they also need stories that are rooted in reality-their own reality. This is an issue of sufficient concern to those in the business for it to become one of the main themes of the Second World Summit on Television for Children.