Media: Watch out kids, it's death by animation: Cartoons and soaps, says the BBC's Anna Home, are replacing fairy-tales and drama on children's TV. Celia Dodd reports on a sad decline

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IN THE recently rehashed debate about violence, television and the young, children's programmes came off surprisingly lightly. The corruptors of the nation's youth were seen to be adult programmes - which children love. This is a powerful argument for the continuation of a service specifically for children. Most parents would prefer their children to see programmes that can be safely watched without mother, produced by companies that put responsibility to their audience first and ratings second.

Children are not so sure. Ask nine- year-olds what they like to watch and the answer is more likely to be Harry Enfield than the ever-worthy Blue Peter. Even so, Blue Peter regularly attracts five million viewers; so, too, do period dramas such as The Return of the Psammead, the sequel to E Nesbit's classic Five Children and It.

But children's television is an endangered species, according to a new book by Anna Home, head of children's programmes at the BBC. She paints a bleak future of wall-to-wall cartoons and junior soaps as the sole survivors in an increasingly pressured broadcasting environment. Children's programming in Britain has never been hugely profitable; in the future it may have to be.

The battle for daytime audiences could lead to adult programmes eating into after-school children's hours; pressure to cut costs is likely to mean more cartoons and game shows and less drama or storytelling. And new channels can easily woo children away from ITV and BBC with nothing but imported cartoons.

Some people, including the Broadcasting Standards Council, warn that the rot has already crept in. The BSC's recent report on children's television points out that cartoons and 'other predominantly entertaining formats' - vacuous game shows with hyperactive hosts - have doubled on BBC and ITV since 1981, to make up more than half their output in 1991. This is at the expense of storytelling, pre-school and factual programmes.

But Ms Home, a champion of children's right to pure entertainment, remains unrepentant: 'There has been an increase in animation, but there has also been an increase in airtime. I have no problem with cartoons at all, provided that they're good, and that they're part of a mixed diet.

'My concern is when you have nothing but cartoons, which is what happens in America, where the networks do not believe that children will watch anything else.'

Despite her fears for the future, Ms Home only grudgingly accepts the usefulness of independent monitoring of children's programmes as recommended by the BSC report; she is quite happy with her own internal system. Nevertheless she is worried about the low standard of much of the animation coming out of the US and Japan, and the poor prospects for improvement. It is a concern shared by other European broadcasters, and has led to the co-production of an epic cartoon series, The Animals of Farthing Wood, funded by 19 countries.

So far Ms Home has been able to manipulate animation to her advantage: 'You can use cartoons in your schedule to prop up the more serious programmes. The reason children watch Newsround is that we put cartoons and drama around it. But if children have a choice of five or six channels, all pumping out cartoons at the same time, it's going to be harder and harder to persuade them to watch more demanding programmes.'

Canny scheduling is one way round that problem, as are programmes with sufficient playground cred to attract children away from a diet of pap: 'You need something that creates a buzz. That's why Neighbours is so successful - last night's episode is part of the daily gossip at school.'

But how does Ms Home, a middle- aged woman with no children, know what will create a buzz in the playground? She believes it has less to do with instinct than experience and contact with children. Since she started in children's television, working on the BBC's Play School in the Sixties, production teams have visited children at home and in school.

The two-way relationship with the audience is unique to children's television; while adult viewers only write to complain, children make positive suggestions about what they want. Weekly audience analysis is backed up by surveys for particular programmes, such as Hangar 17, a kind of Crackerjack for the Nineties, which has taken three series to get right.

Ms Home admits she does not enjoy everything her department puts out - no adult would - but insists she knows what children will like. She often gets it right: two long-running programmes that broke the mould in their time, Jackanory and Grange Hill, were her brainchildren.

But her enduring passion is drama, and particularly adapting for a new generation the classic novels she devoured as a child - Five Children and It, The Borrowers, and soon The Little White Horse. Her commitment to drama as a vital element of the schedule is fierce; budgets permitting, she would make more.

'Children's emotional needs and concerns are different to adults', and drama is one of the best ways of satisfying those needs,' she writes. 'But it would be only too easy under economic pressure for children's drama to degenerate into a few long-running, successful contemporary series and lose the richness that has traditionally been in the mix. It is important that children should get some element of historical perspective within their drama.'

For the time being, Ms Home can sit back and watch how her newly appointed opposite number at ITV, Dawn Airey (controller of daytime programmes as well as those specifically for children), deals with the more immediate pressures facing her, secure in the knowledge that her own department will not be directly affected until 1996 at least.

But she recognises that her advantage is a double-edged sword: 'The commercial pressures on ITV's daytime are going to be bigger than they've ever been, and I think they're going to have quite a struggle to keep themselves going with the kind of mix that they have now. And if ITV were to start showing more cartoons we would have real problems.'

'Into the Box of Delights: a History of Children's Television' is published by BBC Books at pounds 15.99.

(Photographs omitted)