In television as elsewhere, many are vexed but few are spared by the current competitive ethos. However much some may deplore the fact, the BBC in particular is now compelled to measure its success and justify its income as much in terms of ratings as by lofty appeals to public service. As companies and programme producers discover almost daily, reputation counts for little in the new world of multi-channel television.
The 10 essays in Small Screens: television for children point to the ways in which the new, hyper-commercial climate has influenced the development and broadcasting of children's programmes. In economic if not educational terms, we've come a long way from Bill and Ben to Teletubbies. As David Buckingham points out, the international marketing operation built on Tinky Winky et al is typical of an age of global merchandising opportunities.
This is arguably even more true of cartoon series such as The Simpsons and South Park, the merits and appeal of which Paul Wells examines in an essay as arcane as it is well informed: Tom and Jerry, we learn, "called uponI the ontological ambivalence of the cartoon vocabulary to play out a flux of gender positions and cross-species couplings". Quite so.
Thankfully, other contributions are less obscure. While M ire Messenger Davies argues clearly and convincingly for the cultural necessity for children's costume drama series, Ken Jones and Hannah Davies show how Grange Hill's revolutionary style and content was more apparent than real. Equally absorbing is Julian Sefton-Green's review of websites linked to children's television programming.
Marred only by several contributors' insistence on describing at length what they intend to argue ("In this chapter, I want to suggestI ") instead of getting on with it, this collection offers a valuable survey of technical, cultural and market changes that are certain to affect us all.
Laurence Alster is a lecturer in media studies at Southdown College, Portsmouth, Hampshire