Youth: Presenting: Generation Y TV

Here are the faces of a new tidal wave of television. They're shiny, happy and bland, and their cheeky pop shows are swamping the networks. Has Stepford Kids' TV arrived?
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Meet Tim, Chris and Gail, the new presenters of

BBC1's weekend-morning fun'n'pop show

Fully Booked. They smile. They're happy. They tell jokes and fool around. They announce competitions and get madcap on each other. You'd never know it, but Tim and co are the latest shock troops in the BBC's long-term battle for survival in the hearts and minds of viewers. They won't kick your door down, but they'll come calling at the downright unsociable time of 9.30 on a Sunday morning.

Fully Booked, which during the summer season replaces Live & Kicking, has been on air for three years. Its previous key presenter was a puppet cow, but the show has just had a major revamp to make it more "mature". Chris and Tim and Gail are the new on-screen team who interview pop stars, deliver quirky set pieces to camera and chat to the audience. It's the same formula as most kids' programming these days. If you weren't paying attention, you might not notice Live & Kicking had gone off air.

In their Glasgow studio, the shock troops are rehearsing. Tim, 25, was a child actor before he was a Blue Peter presenter. He says he doesn't know what sort of career he wants and he thinks it's important not to talk down to kids. Gail, 27, used to be a presenter on BBC Scotland. She wouldn't mind producing programmes but wants Chris and Tim to present them. Chris, 27, was a radio DJ before presenting links on Children's BBC. He'd like to do more radio and make it as a club DJ. All in all you'd be hard pressed to find a nicer, smilier, shinier bunch. Indeed, look across the landscape of kids' TV, and you'll see their like everywhere. On Live & Kicking, there's Zoe Ball and Jamie Theakston; on The O-Zone there's Jayne Middlemiss and Jamie Theakston (again); on The Mag there's Josie D'Arbly; on Massive there's Malcolm Jeffreys; on Top Of The Pops there's Jo Whiley - as well as Jayne Middlemiss, Zoe Ball and Jamie Theakston. These are the bubbly, happy faces of a new wave of television. They are the faces of Generation Y TV.

Last year, advertising researchers in both America and Britain identified a trend spreading through the youth market, specifically affecting the eight- to 15-year-old age group. They believed that this trend had become large enough to define an entire generation of kids, in much the same way that the disaffected slacker culture had been defined as Generation X. The admen, imaginatively, called it Generation Y.

The defining characteristic of Generation Y is that they are everything Generation X was not. They are nice and happy and optimistic. They believe life is good and they want to succeed at it. Musically, they buy Hanson, the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls, shunning gangsta rap and loud guitars. They watch Nineties B-movie remakes such as Scream 2, Starship Troopers or I Know What You Did Last Summer. At the same time, they are the first generation to have been relentlessly sold to since they were conceived, with Ninja Turtles and Disney movie spin-offs and Tamagotchis and Power Rangers. (Hell, they were born around the time Star Wars invented the doll of the film, so Merchandising is their middle name.) They have the ironic self-awareness of Generation X, but they just see it as a fresh way to make themselves happy. Our schools are overflowing with cheerful youngsters listening to shiny, happy bands and facing the future with a relentless, if slightly knowing, optimism. They are, you might say, the Stepford Kids.

Douglas Coupland, who had a crucial hand in labelling his age group with his novel Generation X in 1991, has also monitored the change. He says he approves of what he terms, "all these seemingly modular kid units flattening out the mediascape. At the core of pop culture these days we find Mentos, Goosebumps [US kids' TV shows] and Hanson. And that's fine. The kids have got their own thing going. Good."

In the UK, Generation Y has been gaining momentum since the last dying gasp of Britpop a couple of years ago. The Spice Girls gave careful observers the first hint of what was to come; 911 and the Backstreet Boys followed. Radio 1 tried to follow the laddish Chris Evans with the laddish Mark Radcliffe, but gave up on him and recruited Live & Kicking's Zoe Ball. Evans found his new broadcasting home with his older audience on the adult rock station Virgin. Radio 1's playlist has also shifted from its proud plugging of new music into a more straightforward chart selection. The kids want fun and pop and that's what they've got on radio and TV.

Over at British MTV, they've been programming for Generation Y for the past nine months. "When we launched MTV UK as a stand- alone channel last summer, we thought that the grunge, rocky, grainy element of MTV was long over," says Christine Boar, vice-president of programming and production for MTV UK. "Young people want designer clothes and computers and they want to own things. That whole Nirvana thing is a bit of a cliche these days. There's a real feelgood air about music and about people."

This is the generation, this is their television. They have given the makers of kids' shows a new lease of life. Edward Pugh, executive producer of Fully Booked, recalls a time five years ago when things looked very grim. At a Bafta craft awards ceremony he found himself on the same table as a bunch of documentary producers joking that they were an endangered species. Now, however, kids' TV is vital. In multi-channel television, you've got to get viewers watching young or they'll forget you exist and never tune in again. Over in the States, they've known for years that kids' TV means pester-power adverts, product-related cartoons (remember the Ninja Turtles?) - and mums and dads slumping down with the kids. When the Americans started launching children's channels over here - Nickelodeon, TNT, The Cartoon Network, The Disney Channel and Fox Kids - they started taking huge chunks of kiddie viewing from the terrestrial broadcasters. In order to keep a generation, the BBC and ITV fought back. Hence the Fully Booked blitzkrieg of fun.

All this is scaring the pants off Malcolm Gerrie, the man who created the seminal pop show The Tube and is now managing director of TV production company Initial, as well as producing The Brits and Channel 5's Pepsi Chart. "It's a global village of the damned," he says. "You find all these squeaky clean, perfectly dentured kids' TV presenters beaming earnestly away and you realise that middle England is alive and kicking on your TV screens. It's the same with the tidal wave of teen drama and soaps we're drowning under now. If you include Sky, there's well over a dozen of them on air. It's puberty gone mad, but no one farts, wanks or has a period. All the characters and plots are interchangeable. At least on Grange Hill people used to get up the duff or wind up on smack. In these soaps, nothing really bad happens. It seems terribly sinister."

Part of his worry is that kids' TV is a breeding ground for the television faces of the future and he's not sure he wants to see these new faces on prime-time. Anthea Turner, Philip Schofield, Zoe Ball, Jenny Powell, Emma Forbes and even Noel Edmonds got their break through kids' telly. Some even ended up behind the scenes running the television industry, which ought to send a shiver down your spine. Most notable among these is Andi Peters, who was the first presenter of Live & Kicking and is now commissioning editor for children and young people at Channel 4. It's his vision that will push this TV world further and further.

"I think the whole pop icon environment has shifted," Peters says. "These days, everyone can be part of the pop culture horizon, from David Beckham to Prince William, which wouldn't have been the case a few years ago. For me, it was Philip Schofield who was the first to make presenting children's television the thing that I wanted to do. It's since him that we have become these aspirational caricatures. It's fine being a puppet but you find that it's the TV companies that are pulling the strings so if you want to have real power, you have to move into making television."

Peters' heir apparent has to be Jamie Theakston. Not only is Theakston presenting the two BBC weekend programmes that Peters created in Live & Kicking and The O-Zone, but he hopes to get behind the camera later in his career. In The O-Zone, he has introduced a new, knowing style of presentation which marks him out as brighter and funnier than the rest of the rather earnest crop. It's a relief to find that he is nothing if not brutally honest about kids' TV.

"To an extent, the formula has been in place for the past 15 years," he says. "You do need a discipline because Live & Kicking is three hours of live television and I can't think of anything else that demanding apart from Grandstand - although that's pretty much where the comparison ends. There is a danger in youth TV that the formula can take over. The presenters have to be given freedom to experiment or the shows will all look identical."

He agrees there has been a change in the climate of pop culture and puts it down in part to the end of the indie record scene in the early 1990s when the smaller labels and bands were snapped up by the majors. "Now you find that old-style indie acts like Catatonia play the same programmes as other chart acts whereas Oasis and Blur wouldn't really appear on those shows. There's more homogeneity now. Everyone listens to the same bands, and The Verve are popular with 12-year-olds where such a band wouldn't be pushed at them five years ago." It's not something he has a problem with for now, however. "I may be riding the wave of Generation Y TV," he says, "but I'm getting out before Generation Z when everyone becomes totally brain-dead"

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