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.