The construction of children as a media market in the United States, 1945-2000

Research for a Leverhulme Trust Emeritus Fellowship, 2019-21





Debates about children and media are rarely absent from the headlines; yet much of the discussion focuses only on the very latest developments. By contrast, this research takes a longer historical perspective, seeking to understand the origins of contemporary policies and practices, and to question the underlying assumptions about childhood that inform them.

The research will add a stronger US dimension to my broader project, ‘Growing Up Modern: Childhood, Youth and Popular Culture Since 1945’. My aim here is to understand how pre-teenage children were defined and constructed as a media market in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. The research will involve several case studies focusing on specific periods of significant technological, economic or cultural change. I will analyse how new segments of the child audience were identified and/or created; how children’s needs were defined and understood; how knowledge was gathered about them, for instance through research; and how particular media were used to target and address them.

The main focus will be the dominant medium of television, but I will consider this as part of a broader commercial nexus including film, print media, toys and digital technologies. The periods to be studied include: the ‘discovery’ of the child audience through market research (1940s-1950s); the emerging struggle between public and advertising-funded television (1950s-1960s); the growing importance of TV-related merchandising (1970s-1980s); the rise of specialist cable channels for preschoolers and ‘tweens’ (1980s-1990s); and the early interactions between television and digital technologies (1990s-).

Within these periods, I will develop specific empirical case studies, including: the work of cable companies such as Nickelodeon, Turner and Disney; the interface with toy companies such as Mattel and Hasbro; the work of non-profit and public broadcasters (Sesame Workshop, PBS); and public policy debates over the regulation of commercial television. While I am not looking at audiences directly, my central emphasis is on how child audiences are constructed: the assumptions that are made about them, the discourses that define them, and the knowledge that is gathered about them. I am also studying how producers’ assumptions and knowledge about audiences are manifested in the form and content of media texts, and in how children are represented, addressed, entertained and educated.

This project involves archival research, using both printed documents and media, as well as face-to-face interviews with current and former personnel in and around the media industries. My research plan entails five three-week visits to four main locations over the two-year period. Essays and blog posts emerging from the research will appear on this site as the work proceeds.