In many respects, the broader landscape of children’s media has been massively transformed in the twenty years since the debut of Teletubbies. Preschool children are, by definition, a small fraction of the overall viewing audience; and the more that broadcasters seek to cater for distinctions within that audience, the smaller it becomes. To acknowledge the considerable differences between two-year-olds and five-year-olds is, in these terms, a very costly move. Yet the proportion of household income being spent on children – not least on catering to their tastes in media – has increased exponentially in recent years. Very young children – or at least their parents – now constitute a massively lucrative global market.
Inevitably, this market has also become more competitive. In her comprehensive account of the production of preschool television, Jeanette Steemers has described the increasingly complex ways in which programmes now have to be funded. Merchandising is crucial. Behind Peppa Pig, Bob the Builder and Postman Pat stand legions of other licensed characters, all with their own lines of merchandise: these are effectively the brands of young children’s media worlds. Meanwhile, companies have to spread their work across multiple platforms. Broadcast (or at least cable and satellite) television remains important, particularly for this age group: countries like the US and the UK now have several competing specialist channels specifically targeting the youngest age groups. Yet DVDs, games and other software are also increasingly vital to success; and specialist ‘channels’ for preschoolers can also be found on online platforms such as YouTube. Meanwhile, producers are increasingly looking to co-production in their efforts to maximize funding, and to reach markets around the world. All these new forms of funding and distribution present risks as well as the promise of profit. In this more uncertain environment, traditional distinctions between commercial and public service providers have blurred to the point where they are almost meaningless – although, as we’ve seen in the case of Sesame Street and Teletubbies, this has been apparent for many years.
Indeed, as I’ve suggested at various points in this essay, several of these developments are far from new. The success – and indeed the very existence – of long-running shows like Sesame Street and Teletubbies has depended upon their use of a range of media, as well as on merchandising and global sales. There are also striking (and sometimes unexpected) continuities in both the form and the content of the programmes themselves. Traditional aspects of ‘children’s culture’ (fairy tales, nursery rhymes) have by no means disappeared, even as they have been translated across different media; and while the various forms of presentation (the use of puppets and animation, the roles of adult presenters) may vary greatly between programmes, the combination of elements has not massively changed over time. If one looks at contemporary successes – from Peppa Pig or Charlie and Lola through to Ragdoll’s In the Night Garden or The Adventures of Abney and Teal – one can recognize several continuing traditions still in play. And as I’ve noted, it is striking to see how many of these shows have lasted so long, and how many are being re-made several decades after they first appeared.
At the same time, there have been some significant shifts in at least two of the areas I have considered in this essay: education and entertainment, and media literacy. Marshall McLuhan once famously said that anyone who talks about the relationship between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either of them. Even so, I would argue that this relationship has increasingly become a focus of debate, and indeed of tension, in recent years. As educational systems have become ever more competitive, parents are coming under growing pressure to ensure the future success of their children; and this pressure is now starting at an ever-younger age. Education has become an increasingly lucrative market opportunity: the market in ‘fun learning’ or ‘edutainment’ videotapes, magazines and toys for pre-schoolers is currently booming. ‘Watching with mother’ may be a thing of the past – if indeed it was ever more than a set of good intentions; but learning with mother – or at least the expectation that parents will act as teachers of their pre-school children – may increasingly be a thing of the future.
Here again, this is not a new development, although it is one that seems to be somewhat more advanced in the US than in the UK. Historically, as we’ve seen, British broadcasters have been more inclined to espouse ‘child-centred’ theories, while US programmes have been much more explicitly instructional. At least in principle, British broadcasters have also been more insistent on children’s need for ‘pure’ entertainment, although that’s not to say that children necessarily find British programmes any more entertaining than their American counterparts. Meanwhile, this distinction cannot simply be mapped on to a distinction between commercial and public service programming. For instance, Barney and Friends is one of the most unabashedly ‘commercial’ programmes I have considered here, yet it is also without doubt the most explicitly didactic. If anything, it is the public service programmes like Teletubbies and its successor In the Night Garden that seem to provide a much ‘softer’ form of pedagogy, and greater opportunities for play.
To some extent, we need to distinguish between these programmes in terms of their target audience. For example, Teletubbies was one of the first programmes ever intended for very young children (aged roughly between one and three), not least because one of its immediate predecessors, Playdays, had ‘aged up’ and was seen to be addressing those aged four and five. Meanwhile, Barney and Friends claims to be targeted at a much wider age range (between one and eight) than most of these other programmes. However, such claims are not necessarily to be taken at face value; and in any case, there is bound to be a difference between the target audience and the actual audience, which will be much broader. Nevertheless, as the curriculum for younger children (for example in nursery schools) becomes steadily more formalized, programme makers in this age group are being much more directly called upon to justify themselves in educational terms. Preschool television and other media have to present themselves as a form of preparation for school learning: the insistence on child-centredness, on learning through play, let alone on young children’s right to entertainment, now seems increasingly like a rearguard action.
Meanwhile, the massive growth of the pre-school market and the proliferation of media and technology have also had significant implications for our assumptions about young children’s media literacy. Young children are undoubtedly growing up in a much richer and more complex media environment: there is a much greater amount of media content directed at them, and they are able to access it through a much wider range of technological devices. However, it’s important to avoid a simple linear narrative of technological progress in this respect.
Looking back, one can partly trace the formal limitations of Watch with Mother to the technological constraints of television production at the time; and one might see the creative innovations of contemporary programmes – for example, in their use of animation and interactive narrative – as a consequence of technological change. Yet newer media are not necessarily more aesthetically or formally complex – or more demanding in terms of media literacy – than their earlier counterparts. The kinds of interaction or participation in which today’s children are invited to engage are not necessarily any less restricted or superficial than they have been in the past. In some respects, the original Sesame Street seems more formally adventurous than the more recent programmes I have described. A series like Blue’s Clues makes use of digital technology (albeit of a fairly basic kind), yet in some ways it seems more ‘conservative’ than shows that preceded it, at least in its assumptions about children’s media literacy. The differences here are rather more to do with the educational aims of these different programmes, and the pedagogical assumptions on which they are based.
Equally, we need to beware of assuming that young children today are necessarily more media literate as a result of such changes. The virtual spaces of online play do create new possibilities in terms of children’s learning: children can interact with each other at a distance, they can participate and to some extent generate their own content, and they can do so in real time or at their own pace. Yet as Jackie Marsh and Julia Bishop have shown, there are also some striking continuities in terms of how children play, and in what they are doing with media. Marsh and Bishop compare their own research on children’s play from the 2010s (admittedly with somewhat older children) with the famous British studies by Iona and Peter Opie from the 1950s and 1960s. According to them, media today have a greater influence on play, both in terms of content, and in terms of the potential for digital interaction. Yet even if the contexts and some of the practices of play have changed, many of its themes, forms and functions have remained remarkably similar.
Over the period I have considered here – between the 1950s and the 1990s – one can certainly identify some very different assumptions, both about pedagogy and about children’s media literacy. Yet as I have attempted to show, these differences are as much to do with broader social and cultural differences, and especially with different ideas about childhood and about education, as they are to do with changes in the medium of television itself.