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British virtues in global perspective

Eurfron Gwynne Jones reports from a world summit on children and television

The World Summit on Children and Television, held in Melbourne, Australia this month, provided a unique forum for debate on the future of children's broadcasting. But in seeking common international principles for children's television, it also revealed the very different starting points of the countries represented. And that Britain, with its strong range of programmes for children at home and school, is in an envied position.

There were three recurring themes at the event the commercialisation of children's programmes, the effects of television violence and the "imperialisation" of national cultures by the domination of imported programmes, particularly from the United States. For parents in Britain whose children are glued to such Australian exports as Neighbours, the idea that cultural imperialism is an American phenomenon might seem rather quaint.

But for the developing countries, the flooding of their children's schedules with imported programmes is a serious problem. A delegate from the Philippines told the conference that 70 out of 89 children's broadcasts in her country are imported, leaving only a small slice of home-grown programmes to reflect the lives and interests of their own young viewers. With a video compilation, she illustrated the pressures of commercialisation and the exposure to violent images with a showreel of tacky, aggressive programmes that are part of the children's schedules, and how they are coupled with messages to "buy, buy, buy".

It was left to a strong European and US contingent to put the case for quality educational television, with a plea that some of the most appealing and innovative schools programmes should be given a wider audience at home, developing a wider and richer definition of children's television.

From American schools television producer Scholastic there was a demonstration of what can be done with educational programmes. Its series The Major School Bus has been developed into a CD-Rom, producing one of the finest of its genre.

Such events are often accused of producing little of substance, but in the course of the conference, the regulatory body, the Australian Broadcasting Authority, announ-ced that it was doubling the quota of children's drama required of its domestic networks. And out of 40 hours of drama broadcast a year, 32 would have to be new programmes. But critics said that doubling the hours without increasing funds would impair quality.

In the midst of such arguments, it was sobering to hear from Asma Jahangari, chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, that large numbers of the world's children are deprived of childhood, let alone good television programmes. And that while richer countries may be worrying about a communications revolution, 80 per cent of families in her country do not own a television set.

The conference's diversity also made it difficult to find a wording for one of the summit's aims to produce a charter of guiding principles for children's television which will influence regulators around the world. Nonetheless the conference has created a solid basis for future international debate and plans are being laid for integrating research.

Britain's children's programmes would seem to be better than most. But with the new channels and growing commercial pressures, it is vital that the regulation which currently ensures our position is maintained and even strengthened.

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