Whatever its occasional shortcomings, British children's television still boasts the most inventive schedules found anywhere in the world. But do children appreciate it? Favourite adult choices like Neighbours or Absolutely Fabulous regularly pull in more child viewers than the most popular children's programmes.
It is important, therefore, for broadcasters to know what children want from television, and then to make sure as far as possible that they get it. This whole issue was debated in What We Need to Know about the Child Television Audience, a conference held at the London College of Printing on June 28.
Here, broadcasters emphasised the need to obtain regular feed-back from child viewers. Mick Robertson, now producing his fourth series of Wise Up for Channel 4, admitted to getting all his ideas from school visits. He also uses children as presenters and interviewers.
Steven Andrew, producer of Grange Hill, now employs a 15-year-old script consultant. Other child viewers constantly suggest topics such as drug abuse or bullying for his programme to take up. He then sometimes has to take the blame for supposedly "foisting" them on a child audience in fact eager to explore controversial subjects.
Janie Grace, managing director of the satellite show Nickelodeon UK, gets her staff to man the switchboards and the electronic mail for comments from young viewers after each show. But she and the other broadcasters also know that children want to be entertained as well as occasionally instructed. Boys demand more of the three Fs: fighting, football and fun; whereas girls tend to opt for more varied choices. But all are united in wanting as many laughs as possible on the way.
There was much talk about where children's television ends and adult programmes begin. Pre-school children clearly need their own programmes, with many parents feeling they do not get enough of them at the moment. But eight-year-olds and upwards who enjoy adult viewing also find that popular soap operas and comedy programmes take a predominantly adult standpoint.
Child viewers like programmes with children in them which address child-centred interests. These programmes have to be made specifically for children, given the lack of demand from adults for this type of fare.
There was no sympathy at the conference therefore for the notion that children's programmes are little more than a type of adult-constructed cultural ghetto. Anna Home, head of BBC children's programmes, described children's television instead as a protected area within which viewers can explore issues and emotions conveyed to them by those experienced in dealing with a younger audience. Child viewers have long claimed that they learn a lot about life from watching certain quality shows, for example ITV's popular series Press Gang. They do not always opt for the noisy, in-your-face type of television; there is an appetite for ideas as well.
Fortunately there is now also something of a renaissance in television programmes for these older children, successfully mixing both education and entertainment.