Leading Article: When more does mean worse

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The Independent Online
'MORE will mean worse,' Kingsley Amis wrote in Encounter in July 1960. He was discussing the planned expansion of higher education. In context, Sir Kingsley was wrong. But his remark could have been adopted as an introduction to the Broadcasting Standards Council's (BSC) research paper on the future of children's television.

The study of children's programmes over the past decade recognises delicately that there has been 'some narrowing in the range of programmes offered'. Factual programming, pre-school provision and storytelling - the more demanding and rewarding areas - have suffered. By 1991 the BBC and ITV were devoting more than half their scheduling to 'animation and other predominantly entertaining formats'. (Satellite television, increasingly favoured by the young, has an even heavier concentration of visual wallpaper.) A decade earlier such stuff devoured little more than a quarter of the time available.

The report is reassured by the fact that there was 'a substantial increase in the amount of time devoted to children's television' - and that 'by no means all of it was of a trivial or disreputable kind'. Given that children's programmes once constituted one of the great centres of broadcasting excellence in this country, this is damning with the very faintest of praise.

The comfort taken is surely misplaced - as is that offered by the subsequent finding that broadcasters are continuing to make 'high-quality, home-produced drama'. For the immediate future there undoubtedly will be some very good things for young people on television. Contractual obligations make the provision of children's television mandatory, and the desire to retain and renew franchises means that some money and some air time will be devoted to excellence.

In the longer run, the competitive commercial pressure to reduce the range of options will be hard to resist. The likelihood is that the most demanding and stimulating areas will come under the heaviest pressure. This is because so-called factual programmes are deemed to be less accessible (in other words, children have to concentrate in order to enjoy them, or to benefit from them) yet they are relatively costly to produce.

The report is right to suggest that a consumers' council is needed to monitor children's television, although the prospect of another free-floating media council is too depressing to contemplate. The new body should be a standing committee of the BSC. And it should concern itself with more than the maintenance of a modicum of good programmes. Above all, it should address the question of whether more really does mean worse in children's television.

Many children now have televisions in their bedrooms. If they retreat to watch endless trivia rather than sitting with parents to watch, say, a play or a natural history programme, the effect can only be to add to the fragmentation of the family. Is it healthy that children have come to watch on average 21 hours of television a week? Should they be exposed to endless pap - pop videos, mindless quizzes, chat shows and the like, aping the worst of adult entertainment - merely because it is still possible for them to watch decent drama? The time has come to say firmly that there is too much television aimed at children.