X-Files takes over world of Andy Pandy

Children's TV: BBC chiefs sit uncomfortably as corporation gets a drubbing for its patronising attitude towards young viewers
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The Independent Online
Once upon a time - about 50 years ago - the BBC began making children's programmes. In those days, parents were attentive and children were sitting comfortably doing as they were told.

Children watched with mother, clapped to Andy Pandy, and the BBC calmly went off air for an hour-and-a-half in the evening to allow parents to put their children to bed.

But today, in the fiercely competitive market for children's programmes, the BBC is under increasing pressure. It asked yesterday, in a rare public meeting with experts, teachers, psychologists and children, whether it was getting it right. The answer seemed to be a resounding no. Most damning was the verdict from the children themselves who had been invited from across the country to give their views.

In 1956, children could watch less than 500 hours of children's television per year, now, with the advent of cable and satellite, there are five dedicated channels for children and a total of 20,000 hours transmitted a year.

The BBC may have replaced Valerie Singleton's sensible blouse and skirt on Blue Peter with the Katy Hill's lycra outfits, but the children believe they are being patronised, and they told the BBC's mandarins so.

There should be more teenage presenters. Children should be offered facilities to make their own shows and more programmes should be made for teenagers. Children's drama was unrealistic, and Northern Ireland and Wales were under-represented.

One teenage boy summed up their views. "I wish that the presenters of children's programmes would treat me more like a young adult and less like a five-year-old," he said.

These children, aged between nine and 15 were as likely to watch the more adult programmes such as Top of the Pops, Absolutely Fabulous, and X-Files - which they said were in some cases better and funnier, and screened at times which suited them - as children's television.

When once there were the Wombles, this year's top ten programmes among four to 15- year-olds include Gladiators, Casualty, The National Lottery Live, EastEnders and Coronation Street.

The adults echoed the children in their criticism of the BBC's ability to take younger viewers seriously. George Varnava, president of the National Association of Head Teachers, said he had been struck by the "patronising" tone of children's television. "There's no doubt that in many respects we underestimate children."

Dr Aric Sigman, a psychologist, said the BBC should use more older presenters. "There's an awful lot of slim, good looking young people who have arrived on television, and a distinct lack of people who are middle-aged. We are creating a division for children, so that they may not be able to relate to people older than them and will use a distorted image as their reference." But Eric Rowan, executive producer of factual programmes for BBC children's television, was quick to defend his department. "There's clearly a tendency for us to communicate with children on their own level and if that means not patronising them, the last thing we want is a lot of old and ancient people appearing to do that."

Presenters such as Katy Hill, 25, and Andi Peters, who presented the last series of Live and Kicking, were young. "But for many, many years Roy Castle presented Record Breakers and Tony Hart, who is elderly, did Hartbeat. Libby Purves, a journalist and broadcaster warned it would not be appropriate to return to the simplistic days of Rag Tag and Bobtail, The Woodentops and the old-look Blue Peter. She recently tried out the 1950s favourites on a group of three to six-year-olds. "I could not keep them in the room. I had to lean on the door. It was the tone in which they were presented," she said.

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