Entertainer attacks quality of children's television: Rolf Harris accuses TV producers of patronising young viewers by using 'lowest common denominator'. Rhys Williams reports

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ROLF HARRIS reopened the debate on the quality of children's television yesterday by accusing programme makers of treating young viewers like 'morons'.

Following ITV's decision to drop Rolf's Cartoon Club after six years, and a request for him to come up with a new format for next year, Mr Harris said that producers were exploiting and talking down to children.

'They seem to think that children cannot think for themselves or have anything creative to offer. It seems to be the lowest common denominator that everyone wants these days - they just want to cover everyone in gunk.'

Mr Harris accused some programme makers of using children as 'an unpaid moving background . . . The presenters stand with their backs to them. The children cheer when someone holds up a placard saying 'cheer' and stop when it says 'shut up'. That is their total involvement in the show. I don't want this to sound like sour grapes. At least I've got a chance to do something positive next year.'

Last week, Noel Edmonds, presenter of Noel's House Party on BBC 1 (which incidentally features a gunk tank), said he refused to let his children watch cartoons and soap operas such as EastEnders and Neighbours because they were 'lightweight rubbish'. Though perceived by some industry figures as a little 'exaggerated', Mr Harris's latest criticisms do reflect wider concern over the quality of children's programmes.

In a report at the end of 1992, the Broadcasting Standards Council found that the factual content of children's television had declined in favour of cartoons and entertainment formats. It revealed ITV had cut spending on factual programmes by 40 per cent over the previous five years.

The council also warned of a further erosion of standards, caused by the squeeze on funds, more competition for ratings and the reduced power of regulators to defend quality. Children's programmes are one of the few areas to be given statutory protection under the 1990 Broadcasting Act.

Sandra Hastie, producer of the children's drama Press Gang, which won a Bafta award, said there were people anxious to produce quality programmes. 'There is a balance between market forces and standing up for some kind of quality programmes which might not survive in the market place. Right now we're in a transition period . . . it seems to be all about market forces. Someone discovered that throwing around gunge gets ratings. But that's the thing about fads, they pass. Gunge will pass. Children deserve to have good drama, funny comedy and trashy gameshows. They should have everything that adult television has.'

Eric Rowan, executive producer of children's factual programmes at the BBC, said Mr Harris had 'a very selective view'. He said programmes such as the Really Wild Show (another Bafta winner) and Newsround showed that producers were capable of 'treating children's issues very seriously'.

Later this year, The Lowdown, a documentary series for children, will feature a cerebral palsy sufferer, while another series would tackle racism: 'Not frivolous stuff.' Mr Rowan said the factual output he was responsible for had doubled in the past two years.

(Photograph omitted)