The dearth of children’s TV: a homegrown crisis

Instead of resorting to cheap America-bashing, we should ask why Britain has failed to come up with a decent children's TV show since the 1980s.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

The persistent and ludicrous anti-Americanism in Britain has reached new, bizarre levels. It seems that the Americans, not content with overthrowing King George III, lending the UK a loan at an exorbitant rate after the Second World War, and giving us McDonalds, The Jerry Springer Show and the Police Academy sequels, are now also ruining our children with their crap television programmes.

The media regulator Ofcom has this week called for a ‘national debate’ on the future of children’s TV in Britain, complaining that only 17 per cent of output is now homegrown. There are too many US cartoons on television, they say. In short, there is too much American rubbish on the telly.

Floella Benjamin, former presenter of that most erudite of children’s programmes, Play Away, told the BBC’s Breakfast programme: ‘We don’t want our children to grow up with American accents, we want them to learn about the culture and diversity around them.’ Elsewhere, Andi Peters, a veritable polymath who made his name working alongside a puppet called Ed the Duck joined in: ‘I do think it is important that we have some UK stuff, but I’m not offended by the American stuff, as long as it meets our standards.’ And Peter Phillips of Ofcom agreed: ‘The thing we are very concerned about is that it’s important for kids to understand and reflect their own culture. Grange Hill does that for British kids in a way that American dramas, however good they are, don’t do because of the cultural differences.’

How on earth is Grange Hill meant to stand as an exemplar of responsible children’s television? This was the show that reflected the woeful shortcomings of the comprehensive school system in the 1970s, and simultaneously perpetuated it in the 1980s by glamorising insubordination and rudeness in the classroom. Or what about that other example of British television excellence, Blue Peter, which was recently found guilty of swindling money from its young viewers (1)?

And then there is that other, miserable kids show which Britain has inflicted on the world – Teletubbies, a programme in which the characters talk gibberish, and thus encourage young children to talk gibberish, too. Most depressingly, Teletubbies also taught kids to worship television.

Contrast Teletubbies with that genuinely great American children’s TV export, Sesame Street. This is a specifically educational programme, run by a non-profit organisation, which has won more Emmy Awards than most kids have eaten microwave dinners – and for a very good reason. It has appealed to the natural instincts of children: curiosity and a desire for play. Sesame Street combines the two effectively.

Rather than taking cheap shots at Americans for the lack of British children’s programmes on television, we should perhaps ask why British television is so poor.

The last decent, serious children’s TV shows were John Craven’s Newsround and Johnny Ball’s Think of a Number back in the 1980s, which fulfilled a child’s need to be both entertained and informed. Johnny Ball was correct when, in 2003, he accused the BBC of lowering its standards for children’s TV. ‘There are not the same factual shows anymore – children’s TV has become much more trivial’, he said. Ball also made the correct observation that Blue Peter presenters now spend too much time talking to each other, rather than to the camera; children need eye contact.

The BBC has for many years been caught in a terrible paradox. The corporation has never learnt to cope with the launch of ITV in 1955. Ever since, the BBC has been undecided about whether it should serve or provide; to inform or entertain. And since 1955, the BBC has been damned if it does, and damned if doesn’t. If its programmes are informative and intelligent, the corporation is condemned as ‘elitist’ and being ‘for the middle-classes’; when its programmes have been populist and have mass appeal, it is accused of ‘dumbing down’ or being ‘a waste of the tax-payers’ money’. This is why Radio 4 always faces the former accusation, and why Radio Five Live always faces the latter. This is also why EastEnders is continually confused as to whether it should depict reality, or represent a fantasy that it thinks should exist. The BBC doesn’t know whether it should satisfy viewers, or shock them.

In the end, the dumbing down of BBC’s children’s TV coverage represents how our culture has become more Protestant in its ethos. This is an era of Wikipedia, of Islamic fundamentalism, of confessional television, of the txt msg – where the word has become democratised. Anyone can create knowledge now. The Catholic idea of knowledge coming from above is receding.

The irony of anti-Americanism is that it is mostly carried out through the medium of an American creation: the internet. This most Protestant of nations has given birth to the creation that is now used to vilify it. And the BBC, that most Catholic of institutions in its desire to inform from the top down, has lost its way because it wants to be Protestant.

As a Catholic, I hate to sound sectarian, but in its scheduling of programmes for children, the BBC has become quite Protestant and childish.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV reviewer. Visit his blog here.

(1) Blue Peter sorry over fake winner, BBC News 14 March 2007

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