Children's television

21st March 1997 at 00:00
From SuperTed to Scully and Mulder in The X-Files; from Fireman Sam and Postman Pat to Dark Skies, I have a hazy recollection that my son was operating the television remote control from his corner of the sofa at the age of three months.

That remains one of his favourite pastimes and as I followed his tastes in television, covering trends in children's broadcasting, it became a pleasurable job for me. When the column started, this paper was only the second in Britain to pay any attention to the diet of programmes specifically made for children.

All that - like the programming itself - has now changed dramatically. As parents began to concern themselves with what their children were absorbing from their television sets, so children's television has become a hot topic in almost all of the national press.

The current BBC commitment to public accountability has heightened adult awareness of children's programmes. It gradually dawned on the forward-thinking television executives that in our market economy, children (however small) are the audiences of the future.

They started to pay close attention to the subject and, in June last year, after running exhaustive advisory panel meetings on the subject, held a prestigious BBC governors' seminar devoted to the subject. The ITV companies and Channel 4 conceded that they looked to the BBC with its commitment to public service broadcasting to lead the way and to protect home-made programming for children as opposed to endless American (or even Japanese) imports.

Over the past decade much in children's broadcasting has stayed the same - the cosy safeness of the programmes for pre-school children, for instance - but much has also changed.

From the days of Phillip Schofield hosting the children's hour from "the broom cupboard", through his successors, Andy Crane and Edd the Duck and Andi Peters following suit, there is now a much zappier feel to children's television: it, like everything else, has gone into cyberspace.

Inevitably much of this has been brought about by the technological revolution which has radically altered the style of direction in everything from the Saturday morning magazine marathons to exceptional, serious documentary strands like The Lowdown (which celebrates its 10th anniversary next month).

Dramas like Channel 4's Press Gang, ITV's Children's Ward, BBCs' Grange Hill and Byker Grove have all kept track of the ways in which children's lives have been changing, not always to the satisfaction of the well-meaning watchdogs who cherish the comforting thought that drugs, violence and broken homes don't exist. But these horrors do happen and the drama-makers are right to mirror that in their output.

On the lighter side of life, I would say that children's comedy has been far more innovative with its reliance on general slapstick and endearing lunacies rather than tired old sitcoms. Shows like Noel's House Party (BBC) and Channel 4's TFI Friday owe much, I suspect, to the children's magazines like ITV's What's Up Doc? and BBC's Going Live! and Live and Kicking.

Adult television has shrewdly taken more than a leaf or two out of the children's book. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than Channel 4's Friday, late-night series Captain Butler, starring Craig Charles of Red Dwarf.

Children's television will remain high, and higher still on the agenda with a world summit on the subject being held in London in March next year. Ten years ago, such a thing would have been unthinkable. Now it will attract national attention, just as it should.

That baby of mine who played with the remote control is now a strapping 14-year-old, who has moved on from SuperTed to (heaven help me) Red Dwarf. It's time for me, too, to move on but over the years, writing this column has been a pure pleasure.

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