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Don’t junk kids’ TV

BAFTA-winning producer Anna Home says bans on junk-food ads are stifling independent children’s programming.

Emily Hill

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spiked is the online partner of the Battle of Ideas, the two-day festival of debate that will take place in London on 28 and 29 October 2006. In the run-up to the Battle, we will publish a series of taster interviews with some of the speakers and participants. In the fifth in the series, Emily Hill talks to Anna Home, BAFTA-winning producer and leading light of Save Children’s TV, which is sponsoring the session Is TV good for children? on 29 October.

Is independent children’s television about to be starved out of existence by a ban on junk-food advertising? I have come to that high temple of British television – the BAFTA building in central London – to talk to Anna Home, award-winning children’s TV producer and now leading light of the Save Children’s TV campaign.

The home of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), near Piccadilly Circus, looks like it could do with some junk-food advertising revenue of its own. If it endorsed a few Big Macs it might look a little less shoddy. The brown checked carpets clash with the marbled walls, which clash with the white porthole lights and the MFI fixtures and bamboo shutters. The shiny, silver elevator shouts at the gold-coloured handrails, greasy with fingerprints. On the first floor there’s a videogame convention, which means that fresher’s fayre-style direction boards litter the hallways and game-dignitaries are wandering around wearing red necktags. Perhaps this distinct lack of flash, dazzle and glitz at the heart of British TV suggests why independent TV producers and junk-food advertisers have been roundly trounced by the food lobby in the battle for the soul of kids’ television: they’re just not coordinated enough.

Anna Home, a BAFTA-winning producer and former head of Children’s BBC, sits in the middle of the café. She is coordinated: a haven of good sense and quiet expertise, resolutely refusing to be enticed into sensationalism. For example, does she agree with Jonathon Peel of Millimages UK, that the ‘difficulty with the food lobby is it’s a bit like the Taliban. You can’t really talk to them, they have just one view and there’s no negotiation’? Her reply is tempered:

‘I think [the anti-junk food lobbyists] are a very efficient group of people. They’re professional lobbyists and within the broadcasting industry, we are not. Behaving like the Taliban is perhaps a little extreme….

‘I don’t think any of us want our kids to grow up on junk food. On the other hand, if you’re going to take away an important source of funding, and take it away very fast, then I think you’ve got to think about what you’re going to do to replace it. If it could be phased out gradually – like tobacco advertising was – and give people time to think about how to find alternative funding, that would make a lot more sense.’

The Save Children’s TV campaign is a coalition of parents, producers, artists, educators and others who are ‘concerned about screen-based media for children in the UK’. Their aim is to get both the government and broadcasting regulators to recognise and acknowledge that good children’s TV programming is important and valuable – and encourage them to devise new forms of funding to replace the ‘revenue which will be lost if advertising is restricted’. Because what those Taliban-esque – sorry, efficient lobbyists against junk-food advertising seem not to understand, is that their campaign against such advertising may ostensibly shield children’s eyes from apparently evil ads for Happy Meals, but it will also end up shielding them from any British-made programming. As revenue falls, fewer new and independent productions will be made, and children’s TV will no longer be taken very seriously.

Home has no illusions about what is going on at ITV, which recently declared that it will massively cut its children’s programming. ‘It’s not a terribly happy scenario’, she says. ‘The [advertising] ban gives ITV even more reason not to commission children’s television.’ She points out that ITV hasn’t commissioned a new programme ‘for over a year’, and, as a result, ‘children’s commissioning has gone downhill smartly’. She believes that the lapse in ITV’s output ‘is having a very serious impact on the balance of children’s programming and on the industry as a whole, in terms of those independent producers who make children’s programmes. It means there’s only one real outlet: the BBC, which still makes a lot of its own programmes in-house. And [the BBC’s] commissioning budgets are going down as well.’

Is Home worried that the BBC, without the old competition from ITV, will go further down the route of producing government-friendly children’s programmes that communicate ‘correct’ messages on everything from environmentalism to healthy eating? Already, programmes like Newsround and Blue Peter seem to come saturated with ‘save the environment’ initiatives and Jamie Oliver-sounding items on what sort of food children should be eating.

‘There has always been a tendency for that’, says Home. ‘When we first started Grange Hill it was perceived as very dangerous, very anti-authority, anti-teacher, all those kinds of things. But gradually, when it became successful, people became aware of how many kids it was getting to, and getting to in their own terms. You could feel pressure coming to run certain kinds of storylines…’

Blue Peter and suchlike have ‘always run campaigns, it’s part of their ethos’, she says: ‘But I think it’s certainly not something you want to overdo. I don’t think you should be getting children to spend their lives being worthy…. And I think that some broadcasters have put on healthy programmes in an attempt to validate themselves.’ This, she says, often does not make for very good television.

At the BBC Home started out as a researcher on a programme ‘which eventually became Playschool’ in 1965. From there she developed Jackanory, before moving into children’s drama and commissioning many award-winning and enduringly popular shows, including Grange Hill. She moved to ITV for six years in the 1980s before returning to the BBC as head of Children’s TV, when she commissioned a revival of the Sunday teatime ‘classic’ in the shape of The Chronicles of Narnia. Just before her retirement she commissioned Teletubbies, to the chagrin of some parents who wanted their children to be taught to speak by the TV set, but to the delight of the nation’s tots and skiving teenagers. Teletubbies, of course, became both a national and international smash. Home describes it as ‘very exciting… it was a completely new breakthrough in kid’s programming’.

Some criticised Teletubbies for explicitly targeting very young children. Was it right to expose toddlers to the apparently toxic effects of TV? Shouldn’t they ‘watch with mother’ rather than watching weird creatures on their own? The notion that independent viewing is new is misleading, says Home. ‘Children have always watched television on their own. Yes, the set was in the living room and you had this concept of all the family watching together…but children used to watch children’s programmes, adults used to watch adult programmes. Children now have TV sets in their bedrooms and so adults know less what’s going on than they did, but even so, I don’t think it’s changed that much.’

Home admits that not everything currently produced in children’s TV is high-quality, but a little junk is no sinister thing, she says. ‘There’s always been dross. There’s a great children’s writer called Peter Dickinson, who made a terrific speech at a children’s literary conference called “In defence of rubbish”. He said that in every child’s diet of reading, there is a place for rubbish. And I think that’s true of television. After all, grown-ups are allowed to enjoy rubbish television – why shouldn’t kids?’

The same, perhaps, could be said of the junk food that has precipitated the crisis in the first place: a little bit of junk food is no sinister thing, either. Does she think the proposed bans on junk-food advertising will stop kids consuming junk food?

‘No.’

Unfortunately, she will not be drawn to comment further. The most persuasive thing about Home is her directness, her brevity, her lack of flurry. ‘I don’t ever want programmes to be “good” for children. That’s not what it’s about. When I was a programme maker or commissioner, I didn’t think it was part of my job to do “good” TV, but TV they would enjoy. Yes, what would expand their minds, what would give them new ideas and new visions, but not necessarily something that was “good” for them.’

So, what does she think will be the future of children’s TV in Britain? ‘In the next 10 years….’ She pauses. ‘We could have some terrific mixed-quality channels including the best of British and from abroad – or you could have North American-dominated, virtually non-stop, nothing but cartoons.’ If the former is to win out against the latter, people will need ‘to become aware that there is a great value not in doing “good” TV, but a value for children’s media as a “good thing” in and of itself.’

Ultimately, Home thinks we should ‘set a balance’: ‘I’m all for [children] having freedom, which at the moment is increasingly limited because of the climate we live in…where parents are very frightened of allowing kids to run free. But I don’t think they should be out with bare knees and pullovers all day and all the time, and I think television is good because it gives children, who are increasingly confined, a window on other worlds. And, also, it can talk to them about their own society in their own terms.’

Save Children’s TV is sponsoring the debate Is TV good for children? at the Battle of Ideas. Visit the Save Children’s TV website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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