Once upon a time, not long ago, I strolled downstairs to find my six-year-old daughter watching television. Nothing unusual in that and, you never know, there might be a career in it one day – except that, instead of Tweenies or Fireman Sam, I discovered her glued to what I thought, at first glance, was Family Guy.
It turned out not to be the very funny but highly unsuitable cartoon series, but rather Phineas and Ferb, an animation on Disney XD channel that shares the same rapid-fire, knowing humour. Apparently it has celebrity "cool dads", from Jonathan Ross to David Beckham lining up to impress their offspring by recording cameo appearances – Simon Pegg recently becoming the latest. But for me it had the opposite effect, triggering an un-cool moral panic attack.
I mightn't have been ecstatic about everything on CBeebies, but at least you knew where you were with the BBC channel aimed at children aged six and under. There was nothing there to traumatise your children, or to turn them into precocious mini-teenagers. But just to take one look at the demographic being catered for on CBBC (ages six to 12) or Disney XD (six to 14) is to enter a whole new, more perplexing universe. After all, how do you entertain a six-year-old and a 12-year-old at the same time? It's a question I put to CBBC director, Joe Godwin.
"Mums and dads love the safety of CBeebies", he says. "But when you're older you want to try stuff for yourself, but there shouldn't be anything on CBBC that would be harmful to her". But what about that age-gap that he is attempting to bridge? "Very little of what we do is aimed at all of them."
But what's to stop a six-year-old tuning into Tracy Beaker Returns, the drama based on Jacqueline Wilson's novels set in a care-home, where attitudes are distinctly teenage – especially as it stars current Strictly Come Dancing co-favourite, Dani Harmer. "Children won't watch stuff that has no relevance to them", Goodwin reassures, but I'm not so sure – especially given peer pressure at school, and the fact that children with older siblings tend to be more precocious viewers. Does he get complaints about unsuitable programming? "We get complaints about language", he says, "because we're always striking the line between credible – the language children actually use – and what parents think is suitable. We had a long debate yesterday about the word 'fart'… 20 of us in a room, that's how seriously we take it."
Anyway, my daughter seems to be developing a penchant for property programmes such as A Place in the Sun. The problem with these shows is the breaks, where ads can be graphic appeals for child- or animal-cruelty charities. "Most of children's viewing isn't children's television", observes Goodwin. "Escape to the Country and Come Dine with Me are popular with children – they have well-defined situations and six, seven and eight year olds are learning about how people deal with each other".
From Come Dine with Me? Well, I suppose you get other people to cook for you, you're rude about their food and you still hope to be given cash at the end of the week…