Spare the Teletubbies: they've dumbed-up Watch with Mother

Children are more media literate than adults, says Suzanne Moore. They don't need the protection of censorship
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The Independent Online
I HAVE tried, I really have, to remember the golden age of children's television, a time of intellectually stimulating, frightfully educational programming which have since given way to the psychedelic spawn of Satan - Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po. Before the cleverly marketed mutant Teletubbies took over we watched and we encouraged our children to watch ... well what exactly? Those whistling socks - The Clangers? Those poorly drawn Ninja turtles? Those realistic male role models Bill and Ben? That horrid sexist Postman Pat? The class-ridden Thomas the Tank Engine?

The Teletubbies' biggest achievement is that they have become a symbol for those who want to argue that children's TV is "dumbing down". The fact that the Teletubbies are designed to appeal to pre-school infants: to babies in other words, seems to have been forgotten. If the Teletubbies appeal to toddlers and wacky student types this may be due to the hard truth that compared to grown-ups, toddlers are quite dumb. But of course you mustn't say that because in this game every child is a regular little tabula rasa ready to have its head filled with the encyclopaedic knowledge that "proper" children's programmes should be full of.

So let's, in the words of Mrs Merton, have "a heated discussion " about all this nonsense. There has already been one this week at the World Summit on Television for Children. Quite delightfully in the midst of all this concern about what it is correct and proper for children to watch, one female speaker, Alice Cahn of the American Public Service Broadcasting service PBS, called another speaker, Ada Haug, head of pre-school programmes in Norway "an ignorant slut" in an argument over - you've guessed it - the merits of Teletubbies. What a shame all this wasn't televised and put out just after Blue Peter. But then you can't have everything. An awful lot of tosh is spouted about children and television from people who should know better, yet the only way people will know better is if they sit down and actually watch what is on offer to their kids. No one expects to be a film critic without having seen any films. But everyone from stray MPs to right-wing watchdogs to concerned liberals gets to mouth off about programmes they have heard of but never seen. years of working at home have meant that I have watched a lot of kids' TV with my children. Years of lying in bed have also meant that my children have watched a lot of television without me present to monitor their every reaction. So that means that they are either terribly deviant or terribly average.

In my considered opinion children's television is getting better and better. Yes there are some pretty boring cartoons. "Why don't the people in cartoons ever change their clothes, Mummy?" asked my youngest the other day, but there are also some good dramas, from The Demon Headmaster to Byker Grove to The Phoenix and the Carpet, which kids actually prefer to an unrelieved diet of cartoons. No kid these days can get away from being confronted with social issues, from drugs to abuse to prostitution. There is also a reluctance to admit that children after a hard day at school have just as much right to be entertained as adults have. Pity the child whose every waking hour must be filed with educational activity. The work ethic now reinvested with Blairite zeal has filtered down to our children who are never allowed to be bored or idle or any of those states that might encourage something truly creative to enter their minds.

The category of separate programming for children needs itself to be questioned. Who watches Hollyoaks, The Big Breakfast, EastEnders, Casualty and Top of the Pops if not children and teenagers? Zoo TV, that late-Eighties trend, was born out of the arranged marriage of Saturday morning kids' programmes and a generation of presenters like Chris Evans and Johnny Vaughan who instinctively understood how television worked long before they ever worked in the medium itself.

These princes of media literacy may be currently lauded - they are ironic and self-referential in their constant emphasis on the process of production itself. Now they stand out. Surely though, the coming generation will be so media literate that they will eat these guys for breakfast. "Media literacy" is what much of the debate is currently about, but we get it all the wrong way round. It isn't children who need to be taught media literacy: it's their anxious parents and teachers. Even the concept of Media Studies makes people nervous. The study of literature is still regarded as far more useful than the study of anything that emanates from a screen. Despite Brit Art and Brit design, we still place our trust in words rather than pictures, a residue of our profoundly puritanical and anti-visual culture. The message of those concerned with the medium must be that media literacy is not the enemy of good old fashioned literacy.

If we cannot live in a world where we get information and entertainment both on the page and on the screen, we will not get very far at all. Likewise if we always see one medium as infinitely superior to the other then we will loose out. Anyway, even if your virtual teenager has turned into a virtual nerd stuck in their virtual bedroom cruising the Net all night long, he or she is reading and maybe even writing.

I am not denying that there are genuine problems around children and the screen: the spectre of the global child who has no sense of locality or community has been conjured up. This is the child viewed purely as a consumer to be targeted by huge corporations. The mediated child also gets little exercise or direct experience of the complicated world that flickers before him or her and will have a different relationship to it than those who spend a mythical childhood climbing up apple trees.

The overriding concern continues to be censorship. Most parents act as censors of their children's viewing until the child reaches an age where regulation is no longer possible. Inevitably greater access - TV sets in every kid's bedroom - means that parents demand more regulation from broadcasters. We have lost control over what our kids see because new technologies are outstripping our ability to censor them.

Perhaps then we should approach all this the other way round. If our children are seeing far too much, much too young we should make more of an effort to engage with what they do want to watch even when we forbid them to watch it. This is the opposite of dumbing down. It means entering into some form of critical discussion of the material available to them. When you listen to what they say, they are rarely duped and rather sensible about what they value and what they don't. When I used to watch with mother I got Andy Pandy. When my kids watch with mother they get The Simpsons. If that counts as dumbing down I'll eat my shorts.