What’s wrong with children’s television?

Children’s television has always come in for a lot of stick. If you believe its diverse critics, it teaches children bad habits, atrophies the imagination, propagates stereotypes, encourages passive behaviour, and can even harm their teeth and lead to alcohol abuse and sexual promiscuity.

Many of these claims are evergreen but two criticisms in particular have become dominant in recent discussions about the subject:

  1. The malign effects of advertising.
  2. The dominance of American-made shows.

These both reflect a concern that television is turning our children into young capitalists, by encouraging unthinking consumerism and spreading cultural imperialism (specifically American capitalist culture).

Some critics even aspire to invert this relationship, positing that children’s television could be used to undermine the status quo. Author Philip Pullman, who has described the state of children’s television as ‘social poison’, has made this explicit: ‘Taking children’s needs seriously is not different from taking every human need seriously. It is absolutely central to a true and humane vision of the whole of life. If we need to challenge the prevailing neo-liberal, market-based religion in order to do it, then we should do so proudly.’

I believe that this line of thinking is in fact destructive and leads us towards making worthy but poor quality children’s programmes. It’s revealing that discussion of the content of children’s television is conspicuous by its absence. Shows are judged merely in terms of whether they transmit the right or the wrong ideas; how entertaining, original, imaginative or well-constructed they are appears to be an irrelevance.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the widespread praise heaped upon Lazytown, often talked about as the antidote to poor quality children’s TV. This show shares many characteristics with ‘bad’ children’s television – pantomime-level characters and formulaic storylines, garish colours, over-the-top action, cheesy music and a highly successful range of merchandising. But all this is ok because it is in the name of health education. (Lazytown encourages children to get fit and eat lots of fruit).

I’ll expand upon the points above soon. See you next time when I’ll argue that advertising on children’s television can be a good thing.

1 thought on “What’s wrong with children’s television?

  1. I have to confess glimpsing at LazyTown, even though I have no children, and being drawn to its superficially attractive colours and clean shapes. The characters with their plastic headpieces reminded me of the look of Max Headroom. However, I quickly grew to be repulsed by the whole thing. I regard the show as a calculated and cynical attempt to appeal to children using a cocktail of visual tropes and themes: there’s the pop video format, with its crass attempts to emulate American rock music and MTV. There’s the quasi-Star Wars look of Sportacus’s spaceship. There’s the misguided attempts to bring in ‘cool’ stuff, like the Pixel character and his computer games. As television, the visual language of the show is very restricted (even more incoherent than MTV); repetitive, samey shots and poor cinematic diegesis, which can’t be concealed by the rapid-fire editing and the flashy-looking sets. Just look at some of the musical numbers, or any scene where the actors and puppets are in the same shot, and you’ll see the scant attention that has been given to proper visual structure.

    So far it’s bad enough that it fails as story-telling and as television. But the worst aspect of LazyTown is its underlying sanctimoniousness; the entire show is founded on the premise that it must ‘get positive messages’ across at all costs. The programme-makers have put so much effort into doing this that no attention paid to good story-telling or strong characters. Every plot twist is set up simply so that Sportacus can appear as the patronising adult who knows what best, and proceed to deliver one of his pious little homilies about health, hygiene and supposedly ‘good’ behaviour. The puppet characters who inhabit LazyTown are merely idiotic blobs whose sole function is to get into trouble so that they can be rescued by the ghastly Sportacus.

    LazyTown’s perception of humanity seems to me so incredibly bland; no complexity, nothing problematic in this determinedly upbeat, ‘get-with-the-programme’ styled view of the human race. Why do the programme-makers think that children are so incapable of dealing with ‘difficult’ things? People are either cheerful village idiots (population of town), vacuously optimistic (Stephanie), or scheming spoilsports (Robbie Rotten). It’s doubly ironic that the so-called ‘villain’ is the only one who does anything active, considering the subtext of the whole show is ‘don’t be lazy’.

    Lastly, who decided what these positive messages should be? Is there really a consensus of opinion as to how children should be behaving? According to LazyTown, it’s all exercise, clean your teeth, get to bed early, don’t make so much noise, eat your fruit…I thought all of this had gone the way of the Victorian story-book primer, filled with its ‘improving’ messages which Lewis Carroll found so tedious and stuffy. One glance at the show’s official website and you will find a page called ‘To the parents’, where the following examples of creepy corporate-speak reveal the dangerous assumptions running through these people’s minds: ‘healthy lifestyle choices’…’they can’t help but engage’…’what kids learn stays with them’…’raising healthy and well-adjusted children is an objective we share with parents everywhere’…’we want kids to experience joy’.

    What utter drivel; dangerous, loaded, manipulative. If I had children I wouldn’t let them near this show!

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