The not so magic roundabout

A global diet of non-stop action is depriving children of the television they deserve, argues Anna Home

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I have just stood down from heading BBC children's television, a department, like ITV's, with a fine tradition. But the world in which they were once the sole protagonists has now changed beyond recognition. The result is that today children's television is showing some worrying trends.

When I joined the BBC in the 1960s it was the era of The Magic Roundabout and Paddington. Bothchannels provided a mix of magazines, documentaries, entertainment, drama and acquired programmes, both live action and animation. For years they maintained a respectful co-existence, before competition gradually increased, to their mutual benefit.

The gentlemanly, or lady-like, duopoly is no more. They now compete for audience share. Instead of two channels providing programmes for children, we have three additional terrestrials: BBC2, Channel 4 and Channel 5, plus the new satellite and cable channels: Nickelodeon, Fox Kids, Disney, the Cartoon Channel and the about-to-disappear TCC, and some programmes on Sky. The niche children's channels broadcast most of the day instead of at the specific times dedicated on terrestrial television; and the majority of their programming is made outside the UK.

Most of these channels belong to multinational conglomerates which combine production, distribution, merchandising and licensing. The result is that national programming is having to do battle with global programming. It is an issue of sufficient concern to those in the business for it to be one of the main themes of the second World Summit on Television for Children, to be held in London next March. Nobody would argue with the fact that there are positive things to be gained from children having an international perspective. However, there is a danger that in this global scenario, indigenous culture, and especially children's culture, may get lost. In many parts of the developing world, children are moving from local radio to Disney or Fox without having any television which is specific to them and their culture.

At a Voice of the Listener and Viewer conference in London last week, Michael Forte, Carlton's controller of children's television, described this scenario as "blanket- bombing ... the broadcasting equivalent of plutonium dumping". In the Philippines and in many parts of Africa and South America programme-makers struggle to create shows which are culturally relevant to their children, while the broadcasters - even public service broadcasters - are happy to buy cheap, ratings-winning imports.

Much of this programming originates in North America, although as far as animation is concerned, a great deal is made in the Far East. At best animation is an art form, but at worst it is crude and simplistic. There are armies of super-heroes indistinguishable from each other, most of them exceedingly politically correct. Many of the series come with moral messages, sometimes literally tacked on to the end so they cannot be missed by regulators or concerned parents. However, there is little real characterisation or complexity of narrative. The leading child psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, argued in his book The Uses of Enchantment that children learn about life through stories. In order to develop, they need stories of fantasy; they also need stories which are rooted in reality, their own reality.

This is why Grange Hill still works for its audience after 20 years and still disturbs parents and teachers. The advent of video diary techniques and lightweight cameras have enabled children to make their own factual programmes in series like As Seen On TV (BBC) and Wise Up (C4).

Children are a discerning audience and they deserve quality. Television is one of the most formative and educative influences. It can stimulate creativity, raise awareness and encourage participation. Children want to be active, and they respond to television. They write stories, paint pictures, send e-mail and send money for good causes.

Of course, children want to relax and be entertained, but they do not want, nor do they deserve, a non-stop diet of action, adventure and noise. That is the kind of cultural climate which leads to "dumbing down". I hope the new regulation in America, which requires broadcasters to provide three hours a week of "educational" programmes for children, leads to some innovative programming, but I have my doubts.

So where does this leave the future of children's television here? It will certainly become more competitive. In cable and satellite homes, the share of children's viewing is increasing steadily. As there is fiercer competition for viewers, so the pressure is on to acquire landmark programmes, mainly animation. The buyers compete for series like Jumanji, The Mask, and Casper, and the prices rise. Deals are done between the terrestrials and the new channels for windows whereby each can share in the programming. But what will happen when the competition becomes really hot and channels seek to identify their brand more clearly? The incentive to make deals will disappear, leaving the BBC and ITV needing to find money for sole rights.

Simultaneously, the terrestrial channels are being squeezed for money. ITV has standstill budgets and the BBC has delivered efficiency savings over the last five years. In the BBC's case, additional airtime is being filled successfully for little extra money. This results in both positive and negative effects for the broadcasters. The positive is that programme- makers have to find new ways of doing things and being creative - The Wild House is an example. The negative is that commissioners play safe and recommission longer and more cost-effective runs of proven strands.

Equally it becomes more difficult around the world to raise the money for high-quality drama. In these cases co-production is essential, not in itself a bad thing, but yet another hassle for the producer. However, there is an upside: a number of European broadcasters came together to create two series: The Animals of Farthing Wood and Noah's Island, which were co-operative ventures between 16 participants which worked both financially and creatively, and produced a truly European product. Programming like this has to be supported by merchandising and licensing, otherwise it cannot be properly funded.

Children in Britain have more programmes to choose from than ever before. What is important is that that choice is genuine and that the programmes on offer will provide real entertainment, information, drama, plus plenty of quality animation, and that at least a reasonable proportion of those programmes will be made in this country. This is more likely to be achieved if we maintain a well-funded BBC, committed to public service broadcasting and have effective regulation of the commercial sector and new media.

The author retired this year as head of BBC Children's Television. She will chair the Second World Summit on Television for Children.

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