Starving kids’ TV of funds – and fun

Government pressure on broadcasters to restrict ads for junk food and promote 'healthy lifestyles' is causing a crisis of creativity in children's programming.

Claire Fox

Topics Culture

This is an edited version of a speech given by Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, at the Showcomotion Children’s Media Conference in Sheffield, England, on 7-8 July 2006.

Ofcom – the UK Office of Communications, which monitors and regulates the British broadcasting industry – has put forward proposals to ban or heavily regulate adverts for fizzy drinks, crisps and sweets during children’s TV programmes or during shows popular among children. Whichever of the proposals is finally accepted, the fact is that all of them amount to a serious clampdown on TV ads, and this is likely to cause serious problems for commercial broadcasting. One question is how channels other than the BBC (Britain’s state-funded broadcasting corporation) will continue funding children’s television without the lucrative revenue raised from such adverts.

There can be little doubt that ITV’s recent decision to pull the rug on Granada Kids Production was influenced by Ofcom’s heavy-handedness. For the record, I deplore ITV’s decision; it was a cowardly and retrograde step for British creative talent. It was also a real abdication of a commitment to giving the young quality programmes, regardless of bottom-line profits. However, I would also like to say that I don’t support any ban on advertising of so-called ‘unhealthy’ foods to children – and unfortunately, there has not been enough opposition to Ofcom’s proposals from the industry as a whole.

One reason for such a lukewarm opposition to such heavy-handed proposals is that many people feel queasy about appearing to back the likes of Coca Cola, McDonald’s and Cadbury’s. Many working in TV accept the popular prejudice that foods high in sugar, salt and other additives are indeed a threat to the health of the nation’s children, and they believe that promoting such evil foods is a real ‘no, no’ in today’s climate of strict health correctness. More broadly, there seems to be what I would call a ‘fashionable queasiness’ about corporate interests influencing children’s lifestyles and diets.

However, I am queasy about something else – and that is the new phenomenon of children’s broadcasters themselves seeking to influence the very same lifestyles and diets of the nation’s kids. Last year, for example, Nickelodeon launched ‘Nicktrition’, a series of programmes and live events accompanied by a website, all aimed at encouraging healthy lifestyles among children. This style of positive messaging seems to be seeping into children’s programmes without any furore from within the industry.

But surely this is a major compromise of editorial independence? The story goes something like this: The government declares that there is an obesity epidemic (although note that many researchers believe this to be over-hyped scaremongering). The government then tells its regulators to declare war on junk food (although note that some experts point out there is no such thing as ‘junk’ or unhealthy food. Our digestive systems do not distinguish between fish fingers and caviar.)

Then, following this political diktat that we should all obsess over healthy diets and panic about childhood obesity, children’s broadcasters generate programme content that advertises the ‘correct’ messages. This is best illustrated by proposals to ban celebrities like Gary Lineker, Britney Spears and even Thomas the Tank Engine from peddling crisps, Coke and fatty foods. Such celeb-led adverts are seen as a shocking manipulation of children’s minds. But somehow it is not manipulative when the government quango, the Food Standards Agency, advocates that broadcasters use – guess what? – celebrities and cartoon characters to encourage children to eat healthier foods and to peddle the five-a-day message (where we are encouraged to eat five portions of fruit and veg every day). So now Nickelodeon has the Olympic champion Sally Gunnell fronting its healthy lifestyle guide, and no one raises any problems with that. Meanwhile, BBC Worldwide uses CBBC characters such as the Teletubbies and the Frimbles to brand food products deemed nutritionally sound. One report says that, ‘By controlling the use of branded children’s characters, the BBC is taking a positive leadership role in influencing the diet of children and encouraging healthy eating.’ (1)

It is worth noting a key difference here: the issue is not about using cartoon characters or celebrities to influence diet or lifestyle, but rather making sure that they endorse the right diet and lifestyle. And who dictates what is the ‘right’ diet and lifestyle? It strikes me that what is ‘right’ is increasingly dictated by the government and its agencies. So while everyone worries about the big bad corporate messages influencing the young through TV, no one seems worried about the government’s ‘positive messaging’ now sneaking into the schedules.

Programmes may reiterate government messages because TV generally reflects the zeitgeist. But my fear is that, too frequently, broadcasters seem to have become the unwitting dupes of current official orthodoxies. Traditionally broadcasters prided themselves on their editorial independence. When ITV’s head Charles Allen (since resigned) and New Labour broadcasting minister James Purnell debated whether to relax rules on product placement – when programmes promote, either explicitly or implicitly, a certain product on behalf of the business or corporation that makes said product – a key concern was ‘preserving programmes’ editorial integrity’. However, there is no debate – and I think there should be – about a new phenomenon: that is policy placement through positive messaging, which really does compromise programmes’ editorial integrity. ‘Policy placement’ is now widespread on TV. To illustrate my point, let us look at how health issues are currently covered on television.

Politicising health and lifestyle

Firstly, the political context. Tony Blair’s New Labour government has made very clear that it has shifted the priorities in healthcare over the past 10 years. The old National Health Service (NHS) has been characterised, indeed caricatured, by New Labour policy gurus as the ‘National Sickness Service’ – and the new orthodoxy is to stop us all getting sick in the first place by constantly pushing health promotion instead. In spring 2004, former NatWest Bank boss Derek Wanless issued his government-commissioned report Securing Good Health for the Whole Population, in which he outlined the steps necessary to engineer a ‘massive shift away from seeing the NHS primarily as a “sickness service”‘, towards seeing it as a service which would aim to ‘keep healthy people fit, and people with morbidities and chronic conditions as active as possible’.

Hence, the government’s White Paper Choosing Health focuses on the need to change people’s lifestyles and modify the behaviour of the nation’s citizens. Many of us will have experienced what the government’s healthy living agenda really means: those interminable campaigns regarding obesity, junk food, passive smoking, binge drinking, fitness and how to count the number of units we drink each week (something of a mathematical challenge for TV types, I would imagine….)

But the government’s policies on these issues are not a given, or at least they shouldn’t be; they are actually highly contentious questions in political life. Many of us argue against the authoritarian consequences of the growth of a ‘nanny state’ pushing something like a smoking ban apparently for the good of the nation’s health. Many of these health promotion orthodoxies have far-reaching political consequences, particularly in relation to personal freedom, and as such they should not be accepted uncritically.

Yet somehow, TV-land seems oblivious to these tensions, and it too often repeats government messages with little thought about the political consequences. I know that celebrity chef and school dinners campaigner Jamie Oliver has been virtually canonised in broadcasting circles. But his Channel 4 show Jamie’s School Dinners, and his campaigner for ‘better’ grub in schools more broadly, have had political consequences in the real world – and some of them are far from saintly. A number of draconian measures have been brought in by politicians, all of whom cite Oliver’s series as an inspiration. For example, the government has introduced controversial ‘fat charts’ into schools, involving the mass weighing and measuring of children from the age of four. Meanwhile, local authorities are piloting schemes involving the compulsory finger-printing of children as they queue up for their school dinners (2). One of the justifications for this is that it allows school authorities to monitor children’s nutritional intake. And guess what, both the FSA and Ofcom have cited Oliver in their proposals to regulate or ban certain kinds of food advertising.

Oliver’s Channel 4 programme has been a convenient – if unwitting – Trojan horse for pushing Department of Health messages. Oliver and other broadcasters have proved to be an invaluable asset for a government keen to launch a mass campaign of behaviour modification. After all, it is certainly not a given that politicians have an automatic right to micro-manage their citizens’ most intimate activities, from how many pieces of fruit they eat a day to how often they walk up and down the stairs. Government itself is aware that the agenda is contentious, and that it will need allies outside of politics in order to promote it. So government advisers have, for example, self-consciously advocated using ‘GPs and other trusted health professionals as agents of persuasion’ (3), while obliging pharmacists are encouraged to engage in ‘opportunistic advice on lifestyle and public health issues’ (4). The government is keen to use trusted intermediary agencies to deliver its message and to help change behaviour. I fear that broadcasting is becoming one of those trusted intermediaries, uncritically churning out government messages.

It is within this context that ‘policy placement’ is alive and kicking. Both the BBC and ITV have fully embraced the government’s policy for mass behaviour modification in relation to health. Firstly, we have ITV’s Britain on the Move, which describes itself as the ‘biggest initiative yet to encourage people in Britain to get out and exercise’. In the press release to launch the campaign, it says: ‘Walking might be child’s play but fewer of us are doing enough of it on a regular basis to benefit our health, especially at a young age, and obesity is at its highest-ever level.’ (5)

Launched in April 2004, Britain on the Move was ITV plc’s first fully-integrated national campaign. On-screen features were carried in ITV’s popular daytime shows GMTV, This Morning and in national and regional news programming. Each of the eleven ITV regions broadcast specially commissioned programmes, including regional debates featuring government ministers John Reid and Tessa Jowell as special guests. All of this programming was supported off-air by a comprehensive website and a dedicated telephone helpline which offered viewers and participants in Britain on the Move an information pack and a stepometer. Viewers were encouraged to take part personally by becoming ITV’s ‘first footers’ – people who could demonstrate how walking changed their lives (6). Even ITV’s flagship soap opera, Coronation Street, carried a storyline linked to Britain on the Move. Who can forget that rather clunky episode involving Shelly issuing everyone with pedometers!? On a serious note, Steve Anderson, former ITV current affairs chief, condemned this at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh TV Festival last year as an ‘absolutely disgraceful and real suspension of editorial independence by ITV’ (7).

ITV is unabashed by such criticisms, even admitting that more than 58 hours of airtime were given to the campaign, with a commercial value of £16million. There is only one way to look at this: that ITV was giving free policy placement to the Department of Health. It comes as no surprise, then, to discover that the Department of Health has a specially appointed Head of Broadcasting Strategy, Alison Cook. Give that woman a pay rise; she is clearly doing very well in spreading the government insidious messages in broadcasting….

The BBC, too, has its own version of Britain on the Move in the form of Fat Nation, another fully integrated pan-platform campaign across BBC TV, radio and online services which included a nine-week peak-time BBC1 and BBC3 series. Interestingly, even Fat Nation’s own website admitted that, although ‘the nation is bombarded by messages, from the government and via the media, about the problem [of obesity]’, too many individuals have concluded that ‘it’s not about me’. So the BBC has offered to step in and help. As it says: ‘Fat Nation – The Big Challenge aims to provide that guidance and raise the nation’s awareness of the issues; to change attitudes of people…and to motivate them to change their behaviour through diet and exercise over an extended period.’ (8) The campaign presents itself as a ‘motivational service’, aiming to set the nation a series of challenges and even promising to track individual viewers’ progress and send prompts via text messages on their mobile phones to remind them to tune in, take up each week’s challenge, and to help them change their behaviour.

Hectoring children, damaging creativity

How does all of this impact on children’s programmes? Well, in terms of factual content, the healthy lifestyle agenda is everywhere. I do feel sorry for kids these days: nutritional awareness and fitness quotas are now cross-curricula priorities. Back in September 2004, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) produced the report Healthy Living Blueprint for Schools, in which it said that one key objective was ‘to use the full capacity and flexibility of the curriculum to achieve a healthy lifestyle’ – that is, by incorporating the mantra of healthy eating into science, geography, maths, religious education and history (9). So history lessons include modules on ‘insights into changes in our ancestors’ diets and how some now familiar foods were introduced into this country’, while in science lessons students are taught how to measure their BMI index. And that’s before they get preached at in Personal and Social Health Education classes. They then go home and try to relax in front of the TV, but there they only get more of the same.

This agenda must also implicitly have a self-censoring impact on creative freedom. Informally, stories abound of sweeties in storylines being replaced by apples; of ice-creams being taken out of children’s hands because producers know that such a scene will only end up being cut. Can you imagine pitching a programme idea today that wallowed in ‘junk food’? You would at least have second thoughts about it. In the opening programme of CBBC’s Beat the Boss, a new vehicle for Saira Khan, runner-up in the first series of The Apprentice, the first task was to create an entirely new natural fruit juice drink with no additives – especially aimed at the kids’ market. As an aside, this series followed on from UK chancellor Gordon Brown’s announcement that entrepreneurial skills should be key educational priorities for children if Britain is to succeed in the world economy. It has been reported that Brown’s Treasury is impressed by The Apprentice. Brown has cited the programme as a positive example of TV’s capacity to encourage the young to do their bit for British enterprise and become tomorrow’s Alan Sugars. So, with Beat the Boss, we see yet another policy idea fully endorsed by children’s programmes.

When children’s programming becomes led by positive messaging, there is no doubt that creativity suffers. Take made-to-measure dramas such as the BBC’s Behind Closed Doors, commissioned as part of the ‘Hitting Home’ season on domestic violence (10). This 2003 BBC campaign – which featured storylines in the BBC dramas Casualty, Neighbours and EastEnders – coincided, unsurprisingly, with a Home Office consultation on the issue of domestic violence. More pertinently, the specially commissioned CBBC drama Behind Closed Doors felt like a black-and-white morality tale, lacking the subtlety and moral ambiguity so necessary for fiction to come alive. You could be forgiven for thinking that a civil servant at the Home Office was moonlighting as a scriptwriter; watching it felt like drama-by-tick-box. It worries me that policy placement will lead to programmes so over-laden with issues, so full of finger-wagging and dry dogma, that children will simply switch off.

Another problem with policy placement is the danger that it might compromise journalistic integrity. Too often, policies and political positions – which should be open to challenge – are passed off as facts. When policy or political issues are the focus of current affairs programmes or documentaries, they are supposed to adhere to strict guidelines of veracity and balance. But when policy messages are delivered through entertainment formats and popular dramas, they are less susceptible to challenges when it comes to factual accuracy. When the BBC declares that it is ‘working to keep the problems of obesity in the public arena through incorporating the issue into its programming’ and that ‘by including the issues as part of a drama, the BBC continues to involve its audience in the debate’ (11), one has to ask how the public can debate the facts when they are dressed up as fiction? While news reporters keep a rein on politicians’ wild claims in news programmes, in other, softer forms of programming little scrutiny exists when claims are presented by celebrities or reality TV ‘experts’.

When erstwhile poster boy for Sainsbury’s, Jamie Oliver, tells children that there is evidence to show that their diet affects their behaviour, their physical and mental development, and their ability to learn, he does not provide any hard evidence (of which there is little, as it happens). His assertions are in fact hotly debated and doubted in educational and scientific circles. But how does one confront a celebrity chef with this lack of evidence when he is fronting a show as a campaigning hero? The flimsy evidence that does exist is made available on the Channel 4 website – but then we note that this is evidence is backed up by links to the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Skills and the government-backed TeacherNet websites.

Likewise, when Oliver proclaims to the nation’s children that processed food is bad and organic food is good, are children fully informed that the evidence for this claim comes from the Soil Association, the main advocacy group for organic farming in the UK? This raises a serious problem with policy placement: it is inadvertently eroding the difference between advocacy and factual accuracy in children’s broadcasting.

Take the much-lauded, thought-provoking, multi-award-winning CBBC ‘Serious’ strand. The last two series were Serious Arctic and Serious Amazon, in which two groups of eight children were sent off respectively to the Arctic and to the rainforest. These were not simply adventure programmes or observational natural history programmes; they were more like partisan political missions. In one instance, the mission was ‘to help the plight of the endangered polar bear by collecting crucial data linked to global warming’, because apparently ‘polar bears could be extinct by the end of this century if nothing is done to tackle global climate change’ (12). In the other instance, the kids were signed up as eco-warriors to save pink river dolphins from ‘evil’ illegal fishermen. These series felt like adverts for Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund. In fact, the Serious Amazon series uncritically celebrated the work of the International Society for the Preservation of the Tropical Rainforest (ISPTR), a Western NGO led by Roxanne Kremer (13).

Whatever one thinks of Ms Kremer and her ISPTR outfit (personally, her mission of restoring psychic harmony between people and dolphins is not my cup of tea), certainly ISPTR’s work is not politically uncontentious. It is certainly not ‘good’ per se. For example, didn’t anyone think to get the kids to ask if cutting the fishing nets of local indigenous fishermen was automatically a good thing? Because the programme format amounted to creating an adventure series with implicit ‘positive messaging’, ISPTR’s advocacy of placing the rights of animals above the livelihoods of local people was never held to account or questioned.

One reason for this negligence in relation to the impartiality of programmes is that there seems to have been a shift in the aim of children’s broadcasting in recent years. The BBC seems less concerned about the specific content of the ‘Serious’ strand and more excited by what CBBC’s Alison Sharman called ‘a unique platform for children to make a difference’ (14). There is an interesting emphasis here: the aim seems to be less to create quality programmes per se, and more to create children who ‘make a difference’.

As a political activist myself, I am very keen to inspire young people to yearn to make a difference. However, I am wary of institutionalised attempts to get kids to become activists. Institutionalising activism is one of the key themes of New Labour’s citizenship agenda. You know the story: political elites from all parties are in a desperate panic about apathetic young people. They fret over low voter turnout and political disengagement among the young. Angst-ridden discussions about ‘ASBO youth’ reveal thinly disguised contempt for kids who are caricatured as a nation of Vicky Pollards, couch-potato ‘chavs’, stuffing their faces with crisps and junk food. If only we could get them to become active and engaged….

One New Labour wheeze has been to make citizenship compulsory at school. It has even been ordained that for students to pass GCSE citizenship, they have to prove that they are an ‘active’ citizen. This is usually done by encouraging children to do something worthy, like saving the rainforest, designing a healthy eating tuckshop or recycling something, anything. You get the gist. This effectively amounts to schools making volunteering, well, compulsory!

This agenda is entirely mirrored in broadcasting. Last year, the BBC and the Charity Commission held a joint Citizenship Conference. It was not just attended by BBC staff – all broadcasters were represented. The idea was to present an ‘Active Award’ to recognise programmes that encourage viewers and listeners to become ‘active citizens’. Many of the programmes most praised at the conference were part of the children’s TV platform. But is this a positive development? I don’t think so. The ‘active citizen’ agenda gives me the creeps. It is a kind of top-down hectoring to young people about the socially correct attitudes they have to adopt in order to count as ‘good citizens’.

‘Oh no!’, many TV workers will cry, ‘it’s not top down at all! We ask kids what they think, we listen to their concerns, and we give them a voice as active citizens.’ That is highly disingenuous. In truth, kids pick up received opinions from the leads that they get from adults. When Blue Peter was renamed ‘Green Peter’ as part of the BBC’s ‘Climate Chaos’ seasons, editor Richard Marson noted that: ‘We know from the thousands of emails we get from Blue Peter viewers that they are passionate and active about green issues.’ (15) That is hardly surprising when you consider how much broadcasting time is devoted to the issue, and how the issue has been embraced by all of the major political parties. After all, even the Blue Tories have turned Green. With Blue Peter’s ‘How green are you?’ calculator, children know that if they turn out to be not green at all, this will be greeted with a disapproving, ‘Tut, tut, you are not a responsible citizen….’

Conformist citizens

What really worries me is what type of model ‘active citizen’ all of this policy placement, advocacy campaigning and positive messaging is churning out. For example, on Fat Nation, the 13-year-old CBBC Newsround press-packer, Abhishek, became such a healthy-eating zealot that he got on my nerves. He started modelling himself on Vicki Edgson, the programme’s ‘food expert’ – aka ‘Miss Chiplash’ – who went round people’s houses taking fatty foods out of their freezers. Fat Nation’s young model citizen, Abhishek, explained how he persuaded his mum to empty all their cupboards of chocolates and throw them in the bin. He then boasted: ‘It was like being Miss Chiplash in my own home!’ He sounded so sanctimonious; I have to say that if I were his mum I would have wanted to give him a slap. All the way through the series I was willing him to rebel and gorge himself on junk food.

This incident reminded me of the genuinely fantastic children’s TV series Bootleg, shown on the BBC a few years ago. The plot went something like this: fascist-like government comes to power some time in the future, and this ‘Good For You’ party makes chocolate illegal as part of a healthy-living crusade. Of course, Bootleg was meant to be a satire, but I am startled at how closely this parody matches the reality of Britain in 2006. In contrast to real-life 2006, however, the children who were the heroes of Bootleg fought back by making their own illegal chocolate contraband, equating this dissident behaviour with a ‘fight for freedom’. The sinister anti-heroes were the ‘Young Pioneers’, reminiscent of Hitler Youth, who stalked the streets searching out ‘confectionary abuse’, picking up litter, cleaning graffiti, saving the environment and chanting mantras against fizzy drinks and fatty foods. These ‘Young Pioneers’ were obnoxious and po-faced; how sad, therefore, if the same types become the ‘new model citizens’ imported into children’s programmes by positive messaging and policy placement.

To conclude, watching Bootleg was a timely reminder as to what makes great kids’ TV drama: challenging, counterintuitive, witty, well-written, well-acted and thought-provoking scripts, production and acting. Brilliant! There are many more examples, across the genres. My plea is that we don’t sacrifice this, either by using the excuse of cuts in advertising revenue, or by sucking up to government by delivering their policies to children uncritically. Children are worth more than that and they deserve better – as, indeed, do children’s programme makers.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas in London. This is an edited version of a speech she gave at the Showcomotion Children’s Media Conference in Sheffield, England, on 7-8 July 2006. Visit the Showcomotion website.

(1) The BBC tackles obesity issue through programming and children’s food, International Business Leaders Forum, 3 December 2005

(2) see for example School fight fat with fingerprinting, The Times (London), 14 June 2006

(3) David Halpern, Clive Bates, et al 2004. Personal Responsibility and Changing Behaviour, p70

(4) Department of Health, 2004, The new contractual framework for community pharmacy, p47

(5) Britain on the move, Ramblers Association

(6) see ITV plc – ‘Britain on the Move’ , Business in the Community

(7) Ex-ITV man blasts network’s ‘opportunism’, Spinwatch, 27 Auugst 2005

(8) Fat Nation – The Big Challenge, BBC

(9) Healthy Living Blueprint for Schools [pdf]

(10) Domestic violence, BBC

(11) The BBC tackles obesity issue through programming and children’s food, International Business Leaders Forum, 3 December 2005

(12) CBBC gets serious about global warming, BBC Press Office

(13) International Society for the Preservation of the Tropical Rainforest

(14) Alison Sharman: Speech at Showcommotion 2005

(15) Blue Peter to change its title, BBC Press Office

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Topics Culture


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