'Creeping erosion' threatens quality of TV for children

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The Independent Online
CHILDREN'S television, which has produced many excellent and prestigious programmes in the past, faces a process of creeping erosion in a period of deregulation 'fraught with uncertainties'.

That is the finding of Professor Jay Blumler, in an inquiry carried out for the Broadcasting Standards Council and published yesterday. He says there is a clear need for a consumer body to monitor trends in children's television and other vulnerable areas across all channels, rather than leaving it to the BBC and Independent Television Commission.

Professor Blumler's study, analysing trends over the past 10 years, found that the percentage of airtime given over to cartoons, many of them imported, had almost doubled between 1981 and 1991 - aided by the introduction of early morning children's programmes on breakfast television - while budgets have been cut.

It also points out that in homes with satellite receivers, 39 per cent of 4- to 15-year-olds monitored between 4pm and 5.15pm last winter were watching satellite programmes, more than any single terrestrial channel.

ITV has cut its children's programme budget by about 40 per cent, from pounds 50m four years ago to about pounds 30m now, the report says, while the BBC, whose budget stands at pounds 37m, has made 5 per cent cuts in the last two years. The report does not condemn cartoons, but its authors are concerned that documentaries, factual programmes and original dramas are being downgraded, if not crowded out, potentially reducing the rich mixture and diversity of children's television.

The researcher Chris Mottershead studied schedule changes in the past decade. ITV, the main area of concern because of the franchise auction and advertising recession, ran 500 minutes of animation in the four weeks of afternoon viewing sampled by the research. This compared with only 80 minutes in 1981. On BBC 1, the figures were 505 minutes (1991) and 235 minutes (1981).

In 1981 cartoons such as Daffy Duck, Tom and Jerry and Scooby Doo were used to open and close children's television and lasted for perhaps five minutes. By 1991 the schedules featured longer, narrative, mostly imported cartoons, such as Thunder Cats, Dangermouse and Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles.

While the figures do not support a firm conclusion that the quality of children's television worsened in the 1980s, the report warns that ITV and BBC seem susceptible to pressures to narrow its range. 'It follows that at some point in the future the characteristic British commitment to a diversity of programming for children could be seriously undermined.'

The cost of a colour television licence is to rise by pounds 3 to pounds 83 from next April, the Government said. Licences for black and white sets are to rise by pounds 1 to pounds 27.50.

Peter Brooke, the Secretary of State for National Herirtage, made the announcement in a written answer to a parliamentary question. Licence fee increases are based on the annual increase in the retail prices index as at the preceding September. This year's figure was 3.6 per cent.

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